Theater Review: 'Fly' Soars at The Rep

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Before Jackie Robinson was breaking race barriers flying around the baseball diamond, the Tuskegee Airmen were breaking barriers flying into battle during World War II as America’s first African-American aviators. Bringing their compelling story to the stage could easily have turned into over-sentimental and saccharine twaddle, but with Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s sober and daring script, along with The Rep’s outstanding production, “Fly” soars across the stage for an endlessly fascinating, must-see evening of theater.

Fly at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Fly” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Although formally named the 332 Fighter Group, the airmen’s nickname came from the town in which they trained—Tuskegee, Alabama—beginning in 1941, when many states still had Jim Crow laws. Each of the characters is well aware what it will mean for him to succeed, just as the audience is aware that their heroism encompasses a larger canvas than just the skies above the battlefields of Europe. There’s real drama and tension here—humor too—and inspiration that doesn’t so much hit you like a thunderbolt as worm its way into your soul.

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen and Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen and Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The pivotal role of the Tap Griot doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but everything to do with the play. A griot is an African tribal storyteller, but here the concept is flipped as sort of a metatheatrical convention, where the story is interpretatively tapped by dancer Omar Edwards in a loosey-goosey, Savion Glover-style, right down to the dreadlocks. Edwards is all feeling and bursting energy, but smooth, and like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, he hits all the notes you don’t expect as he taps out the rhythm of scenes, audibly illustrating an emotional outburst or creating the rat-a-tat-tat of aircraft gunnery.

David Pegram as Chet Simpkins, Cary Donaldson, Timothy Sekk and Eddie R. Brown III in “Fly.” ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

David Pegram as Chet Simpkins, Cary Donaldson, Timothy Sekk and Eddie R. Brown III in “Fly.” ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The acting is top-notch. David Pegram, Eddie R. Brown III, Will Cobbs and Terrell Donnell Sledge as the aviators each create rich, full characters that grow on you and become easy to root for, and Greg Brostrom does a mean job as the captain with an attitude. Timothy Sekk and Cary Donaldson, who each play three roles, really shine as the white bomber pilots who begrudgingly choose the Tuskegee Airmen as their escorts on a dangerous mission. Ricardo Khan—who co-wrote the script—wields a deft hand, getting the most from his actors and the many disparate elements to create a jewel box production that lingers long after the house lights go up.

Will Cobbs, David Pegram and Terrell Donnell Sledge in “Fly” at the Rep. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Will Cobbs, David Pegram and Terrell Donnell Sledge in “Fly” at the Rep. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Scene designer Beowulf Boritt’s set isn’t much at ground level, but look beyond and skyward to the five trapezoidal panels that jut out as though the stage is exploding toward the audience. They double as projection screens on which designer Clint Allen’s images of skies and clouds move to help convey the feeling of planes taking off or banking in the air, more like moving impressionistic paintings than realism. John Gromada’s sound design and Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot’s lighting are impressive, and costuming by Toni-Leslie James is authentic and sharp.

The play succeeds on all levels. The excellent script, performances and technical magic come together to create an emotional experience exclusive to live theater, a result that all too often remains elusive. The leap of faith the creators took by using the Tap Griot could have caused the play to come crashing to the ground, but instead, “Fly” soars into the wild blue yonder of theatrical excellence.

“Fly” continues at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through November 12. For tickets and information visit the Rep’s website.

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