by Wanda Sabir
“Black Eagles” by Leslie Lee, directed by L. Peter Callender, currently on stage at African American Shakespeare Company, challenges prejudicial notions of courage and patriotism. All the Fighting 90th Tuskegee Airmen want is an opportunity to serve.
What makes this story even more compelling is its double exposure. Three of the men have older and younger selves. The elders reflect in flashbacks – the younger men, including one dummy, are disciplined, recognize the bigotry and do not allow racism to divide their ranks or undermine their worth.
What happened at Port Chicago was replicated on military bases throughout this country and in international theatres. Racism is a uniquely American export. Even in Nazi Germany, white skin was more privileged, which made the Marines’ Memorial Theatre a perfect setting for Lee’s work.
Add to that Bertram Clark’s Tuskegee Airman and African American World War II posters, photos and artifacts, and the performance has a larger resonance when patrons walk into the theatre lobby, stand at the concession stand and look out the window nearby. Black history is everywhere.
The cast, both elders and younger selves, are excellent. The energy and excitement of youth balanced with the wisdom of age gives the audience a dual perspective on military life the younger selves have not lived yet.
Stationed in Italy in 1944, the men escort white fighter pilots with less flight experience when technically if all were fair, the reverse would have been true. President Obama invited “over 330 of these men to his inauguration and in 2007, surviving airmen were invited to the Capitol rotunda to receive the Congressional Medal” (program notes).
Thirty years ago, Callender originated the character I found most intriguing, Roscoe (actor Ron Chapman), because he is a ventriloquist and plays with a doll. I don’t know how many officers share their vulnerabilities through such a vehicle, but it works.
That Sunday, Opening Weekend, Callender had on his leather bomber jacket from his performance at the Manhattan Theatre Club. He told me in a follow-up interview that he got called into the production late and the men in the cast formed such a bond they all had their jackets personalized with a Tuskegee airman design. Also special to the director is the first performance with the AASC by his son, Brandon (as Nolan).
America is at war, at war both domestically and globally, yet the men are optimistic that they will get a chance to prove their humanity. Strange how death validates life.
The Black Eagles are also young and, as youth, they know how to have fun. The jitterbug drill is a moment in the play that you don’t want to miss. Choreographed by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, the men are steppin’ tall, steppin’ with pride.
And this is just one of the many wonderful moments we share with the men both in the air and on the ground. Another is when the Black officers call on the white officers, their peers, to challenge the unfair restrictions on Black soldiers.
The play closes Sunday, March 31, with two shows this weekend: Saturday, March 30, at 8 p.m., and 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., Second Floor, San Francisco. The nearest BART Station is Powell. For tickets, visit African-AmericanShakes.org or call 800-838-3006. To listen to an interview with the director, visit http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2019/03/20/wandas-picks-radio-show.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.s.