Black History month gives African Americans and others of color the opportunity to reflect back on the tales of our ancestry and focus on the current struggles and challenges of people of color in America. We have weathered the storms bravely, perhaps coming out on the other side a little tattered and worn, but surviving the torrent seas, made a little stronger, a little wiser and with an eye towards a brighter future. Our victories are not won easily. In many cases, those who came before had to suffer greatly, paying a high price to emerge victorious. From time to time, we look at ourselves judging harshly, missing the accomplishments and strives we as a people have made that highlight our greatness. Black History month reminds us.
It seems the world these days has invested in war. Mankind continues to play out an age old battle of one-upmanship wherein no one wins. We teeter on the brink of WWIII with even more sophisticated war tools via nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. High-level aircraft such as the F-117A stealth planes, A-10 Thunderbold II, Lancer supersonic, et al, are a far cry from the PT-17 Stearman, BT-13, AT-6 Texan and the P-40 War Hawk, the Tuskegee airmen flew during WW2.
Those who lust for and instigate wars, forget these wars are oftentimes fought by our children; men and women that feel real pain, fear and soul crushing trauma as the aftermath.
Layon Gray’s “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” takes us back to another era, wherein men unquestionably saw it as their patriotic duty to fight for God and country. In many ways, colored/Negro men (as they were known then), really had no reason to fight for America given their status as second class citizens, the prevailing Jim Crow Laws that kept them segregated and the atmosphere of hatred that predominated over people of color in this country. Yet, they went to war, giving up their lives in many cases, so that this country could one day rise to the credo they espoused that “all men are created equal.” Although, America has still not lived up to this claim in entirety.
The Tuskegee Airmen were young men who enlisted at a time when there were many people who thought that black men lacked the intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism to fly planes. In 1941, at a time when the law of the land was “white supremacy,” six Black cadets out of thousands of applicants were determined to become airmen. They entered into basic flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, under white Southern military instructors. Nearly 1,000 Black airmen were eventually trained and sent overseas to North Africa and to fly escort planes for whites who flew bomber planes over Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pressured by the Black press and NAACP, to recruit black men into the ranks of the Air Corp. Roosevelt did it as an experiment but expectations for the experiment to succeed were low. Whites, due to their bias, did not feel African Americans could meet the challenge. Yet, these airmen far exceeded expectation and performed with bravery and excellence. In fact, due to their exemplary skills the Tuskegee Airmen paved the way for the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, despite having to fight racism within the military, from their white counterparts and racism at home.
Thaddeus Daniels narrates the play introducing the audience to Quenten (Layon Gray); Abe (Thom Scott II); Theodore (Ananias Dixon); Elijah (Delano Barbosa); Jeremiah (Melvin Huggnagle) Percival (David Roberts) and Craig Colasanti as Major Roberts. The cast does a fine job of painting an intimate portrait of each character. Thus, the audience cannot help but be drawn in, feeling the airmen’s pains and joys vicariously.
Playwright and actor Layon Gray does a masterful job in bringing the airmen to life. We love the innocence of the music loving Theodore and the brotherly love between the sickly Quenten and volatile Abe. Melvin Huffnagle as Jeremiah, the no-nonsense recruit, is initially unfriendly, but later learns to love his fellow airmen. Elijah (Barbosa) and Percival (Roberts) are the peacemakers and thread holding the men together. Each shows their strength through their love, vulnerability and via their loyalty. We want to protect them but we can’t. This play is a warm reminder that if you do not know where you came from, you cannot know where you are going. It truly exemplifies the expression: “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
Black Angels Over Tuskegee is inspirational. It’s humorous and memorable. A play if seen before, you want to see again. I suggest you do. Tickets are $36.50 and are available at Telecharge.com or by calling 212/239-6200. Performances are at 8:00 p.m., at the Actors Temple Theater (339 West 47th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan) on Saturdays only.