- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Don’t mess with the women of Nicodemus, Kan. And if you do, steer clear of their apple pie.

These are just two of the many insights you come away with in the True Colors Theater Company’s strong and sassy production, directed by Andrea Frye, of “Flyin’ West,” Pearl Cleage’s hard-minded play about black pioneer women who left slavery and the South for a new, freer life in places like Nicodemus.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of “free” land — seized from the Indians — to U.S. citizens disposed to living in the vast, wild Western states.

Most of the settlers were traditional families, but by 1890, a quarter of a million single or widowed women were running their own farms and ranches. Many of these frontierswomen were blacks who migrated to Kansas starting in 1879.

Predominately black towns like Nicodemus were a short-lived dream for most settlers, as many Western states adopted Jim Crow laws by the early 1900s that were every bit as harsh as those enforced in the Deep South.

Miss Cleage, a novelist and FOO (Friend of Oprah), sets “Flyin’ West” in the glory days, when the prairie was populated by shotgun-toting, tobacco-smoking, cowboy-booted women who were as ornery and land-proud as any cowpoke who flicked a spur. The most colorful cuss of them all is Sophie Washington (powerhouse Crystal Fox), a former laundress who will do anything to defend her farm, which she owns with her two sisters Fannie (Dawn Ursula) and Minnie (Kinnik). She remembers what life was like in Memphis and listened hard to the stories of slavery told by an elderly homesteader, Miss Leah (Pat Bowie), and doesn’t ever want to go back.

As portrayed with consummate squinty-eyed flintiness by Miss Fox, Sophie is the kind of gal who shoots first and asks questions later. Two forces threaten her freedom — white land speculators itching to buy black-owned land, and something closer to home. Minnie and her new husband, Frank (J. Paul Nicholas), come for a visit and it is clear from the first arch of his elegant brow that he’s bad news. Although on the surface the picture of urbane cultivation, Frank is a drinker, gambler and wife-beater, roiling with racial self-hatred that compels him to mock black people every chance he gets. Mr. Nicholas could have given the role a Snidely Whiplash opaqueness, but this gifted actor is fearless in his portrayal of an insufferable fop with pathological weaknesses. You may hate him, but he is compulsively watchable. On the other side of the coin is E. Roger Mitchell’s truly courtly turn as Wil Parish, a fellow homesteader sweet on Fannie.

Frank being a jerk is one thing, but when he tries to get the land, Sophie takes matters into her own hands.

With the help of Miss Leah, who learned about the darker side of herbs and spices from a slave cook defending herself from a preying plantation overseer, Sophie dispenses a little “recipe justice” in the form of an apple pie.

Some of the writing gets preachy and obvious, as if Miss Cleage is overly-determined that the audience learns its history lessons. Two of the characters are also problematic at times. While Miss Ursula is lovely as the more literary and society-craving sister, the character of Fannie is a simp when it comes to marriage matters, prattling on about standing by your man when confronted with evidence of Minnie’s beatings.

Miss Bowie plays Miss Leah with spirited conviction — she and Miss Fox skillfully convey a relationship of affectionate contentiousness. But in the first act she is doddering and semi-senile. By the second act, Miss Leah miraculously — and inexplicably —possesses the vigor and wits of a woman half her age.

“Flyin’ West” is a women-driven show that does not flinch from the callused realities these female homesteaders faced before and after settling in the West. The play takes an unflinching look — one leavened with plainspoken humor — at emotional and physical abuse, slavery, color-hierarchy and racism among black Americans. These women bear all of this and more with eloquence and strength. You cannot fail to be inspired by their stories and by this handsome, heartfelt production.

• • •

WHAT:”Flyin’ West” by Pearl Cleage

WHERE: Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St., NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Sept. 25.

TICKETS: $35 to $39

PHONE: 202/397-7328

MAXIMUM STAR RATING: FOUR STARS


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