Women with guns
Sacramento, CA 95819
Those pioneer women were tough old birds: self-sufficient, sturdy, hardworking and handy with a rifle—and not all of them were white.
That’s the main lesson from Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West, a play about 19th-century African-Americans who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 to leave the violent Jim Crow South of the Reconstruction and take up land on the plains. They found hard work and self-esteem as wheat-farming landowners on what was then known as “the frontier.”
Cleage’s play focuses on three sisters and their neighbor, Miss Leah (Katye Ridgeway), who own their land free and clear. It’s 1898, though, and the price of land in fertile Kansas is going through the roof—which means the all-black town of Nicodemus is crawling with speculators out to get their hands on the homesteaders’ land and make a tidy profit reselling it.
Sophie (Naomi Powell), the eldest sister, has a clear understanding of what this will mean for black settlers, and she’s working to stop it. But when youngest sister Minnie (Brooklynn Solomon) arrives from New Orleans with her biracial husband Frank (André Ramey), it’s clear that he’s not interested in the needs of the burgeoning black community; he wants quick cash. The play confronts the struggle to maintain a black community in the face of racism and the self-hate it engenders.
As Sophie, Powell portrays a no-nonsense woman determined to maintain a place of her own where a woman need not fear mistreatment. Frank’s arrival threatens that, and her response is to fight fire with fire. It takes the wisdom, hard-earned during slavery, of Miss Leah (played to perfection by Ridgeway) to temper Sophie’s hotheadedness. She is the physical embodiment of experience earned the hard way—the moral center of the play—a role Ridgeway fits well.
As the middle sister, Fannie, Arabella Grayson takes on all the tension of the peacemaker, but once backed into a corner by Frank’s machinations, she too has a spine of steel. Solomon plays Minnie as naive, but she is soon restored to realism by her sisters’—and Miss Leah’s—insights. As Fanny’s suitor, the gentle Wil Parish, Rick Cook embodies a masculinity that does not fear losing power when faced with equally strong women.
But it is Ramey’s self-hating, angry Frank who creates the conflict, first taking out his rage at the racist rejection of his white half-brothers by abusing his wife, then attempting to dispossess the sisters of their hold on independence—the land they’ve worked so hard to keep.
The production includes a detailed set (and real food during the scenes where meals are served), but that also slows down the pace due to the amount of work involved in preparing for the next scene. With a play that relies on a strong emotional note sounded at the end of each scene and carried forward into the next, even two or three minutes of blackout between scenes is enough to break the mood. These are strong actors, and could be relied upon to do well with less detail; it would certainly help trim the run time, too, which is close to three hours.
Flyin’ West contains some violence within its tale of strength, tenacity and good humor; that’s to be expected from American history.