Down on the farm
Black people—some of them former slaves—as homesteaders on the Great Plains? Taming the land on the edge of the frontier? The image runs against the popular stereotype that Black America equals either urban America or the plantations and farms of rural South.
But it happened in the 1880s, in a place called Nicodemus, Kansas, and a few other spots as well—an effort of sorts to start over in a new place, become landowners and somehow get beyond the racial divide in society east of the Mississippi.
That’s the setting of playwright Pearl Cleage’s script Flyin’ West, currently in the waning weeks of a two-month (extended) run at California Stage—the humble performance space down by the Light Rail tracks at the corner of 25th and R in Midtown Sacramento, where multifamily housing is chockablock with light industry.
Cleage is an interesting pop-culture figure—one of her novels shot up the charts after being picked for Oprah’s book club, and her plays are done here and there across the country (often a little too conveniently scheduled in February, Black History Month). As those who saw her Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Sacramento Theatre Company last spring may recall, Cleage has a certain knack for sketching memorable characters who serve to illustrate the styles and attitudes of a given place and time.
That’s evident in this show—particularly in the character of Miss Leah, an aging former slave who’s moved in with two younger women while recovering from an injury. Miss Leah is given to earthy observations and grand pronouncements, in addition to dispensing some wise advice from the perspective of an elderly woman who’s managed to survive devastating personal losses. She’s a larger-than-life character, and possibly the best thing about this production is the way that actress Stella James brings her to life onstage. According to the program notes, this is James’ first appearance in a play “in years,” but she’s clearly got some experience. The scene in which she describes her life as a slave, including the conception of her first child (soon snatched as property by the slave owner), keeps the viewer hanging on every word.
Strong female characters are very much the center of gravity—alongside Miss Leah are three sisters, dominated by Sophie (Khimmberly Maarshall), who runs the family farm as well as any man could, toting a shotgun and sizing up risks. Younger sisters Fannie (Wanel Thomas) and Minnie (Shelandra S. Goss) are both very attractive and more inclined to romance—much of the plot revolves around their relationships with men, good and bad. (The good is Greg Jones, comfortable and confident as a quiet farmer, and the bad is Cline Moore as a selfish dandy.) Director John Beadry gets good performances all around.
Of course, the other hallmark of Cleage as a playwright is her unabashed fondness for melodramatic plot developments. After a somewhat leisurely start (not slow—more a reflection of the pace of social life in a farming community), Cleage turns up the heat with episodes that involve wife-beating, scheming and betrayal over the family legacy, and, ultimately, revenge. It certainly serves to string the story along, but at some point I’d like to see Cleage write something that didn’t involve a fatal confrontation as a climax.
The show opened six weeks ago (with a slightly different cast) and at this point it has a comfortable “well-broken-in” feel, kind of like a favorite pair of shoes. If you’re inclined toward small productions that feature good acting, and you’re curious about this under-appreciated segment of our nation’s history, this one will make for an engaging and enjoyable evening out.