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Weathervane offering ‘satisfying’ ‘Flyin’ West’

2/14/2013 - West Side Leader
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By David Ritchey

Pamela Morton (Miss Leah), at left, and Danéa Rhodes (Minnie Dove Charles) share a scene in Weathervane Playhouse’s “Flyin’ West.”
Photo courtesy of Weathervane Playhouse
MERRIMAN VALLEY — Four black pioneer women who are determined to protect their land and survive in the American West is the theme of “Flyin’ West,” which is on stage at Weathervane Playhouse through Feb. 24.

“Flyin’ West” seems to be the title of a story about a pilot or a great auto race to the West Coast. But, the story is set in 1898 and takes place on a homestead outside of the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan.

The setting operates as a major character in the play. Three African-American sisters have taken a homestead and treasure the house and the land. Two of the women were born slaves.

Sophie Washington (Roslyn Henderson-Sears) carries a super-sized shotgun most of the time to protect her sister, Fannie Dove (Tina Thompkins), and a guest who lives with them, Miss Leah (Pamela Morton). Miss Leah is too old to live alone and needs someone to watch over her. She, too, has a homestead and a house.

Fannie enjoys being courted by Wil Parish (Jermaine Lamar Harris). She seems to be made of sterner stuff than her sisters.

The plot thickens when the third sister, Minnie Dove Charles (Danéa Rhodes), and her arrogant husband, Frank Charles (Marc Jackson), visit the sisters. They’ve lived in Europe and now have a home in New Orleans.

As the story unfolds, the sisters learn Frank abuses Minnie. He is fair-skinned and of mixed race. She is darker. He explains to his wife that on the train he was gambling with some white men. They asked who Minnie was. He told them, “She’s a whore I won gambling.”

When Frank hits Minnie, the other sisters declare war on him. When that war is over, he probably won’t hit another woman.

Playwright Pearl Cleage is known for her feminist writing and her plays and books with African-American themes. “Flyin’ West,” Cleage’s first published play, appeared in 1995. The script has several problems. First, it needs to be cut.

Second, the playwright provides too much exposition and the action doesn’t start until about the third scene.

Once Frank hits the stage, the action starts moving at a break-neck pace. Yes, he’s the villain, but he makes the villain interesting.

Thompkins is one of the best actresses in this area. In “Flyin’ West,” she finally got a part that gives her a chance to show how stern and dramatic she can be.

Costume designer Jasen Smith and his volunteers built more than 20 costumes for the show, which includes the men’s wardrobes.

Scenic designer Alan Scott Ferrall had the difficult job of designing and constructing the interior and exterior of a modest house that might have stood on the prairie in the late 1800s and, yet, good enough to take the traffic of the characters, who were not always gentle with the set and each other.

This show is satisfying. The show deals with feminist issues, but you don’t need to be a woman to appreciate a good, well-acted story.

For reservations, call 330-836-2626.

David Ritchey has a Ph.D. in communications and is a professor of communications at The University of Akron. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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