Black Eagles, by Leslie Lee, directed by L. Peter Callender
Elder Black Eagles reminisce about their exploits as their younger selves listen.
African American Shakespeare Company’s “Black Eagles” is based on true events concerning the Army Air Corps in WWII and its little known, unheralded squadron of black fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen as they had gone to Tuskegee for training. They not only could fly, but also shoot as well as their white counterparts. The play is dear to the heart of director L. Peter Callender. In an introduction on opening night, he talked about how much this play meant to him. He said he was in a New York production in 1991 and fell in love with it. Now that he is the artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company, he saw his chance. The Black Eagles acted as escorts to while pilots in Italy. guiding them to the bombing sites. It wasn’t till near the end of the war that they were allowed to “get their hits” as well.
Set designer Kate Boyd constructed one set to represent the Eagles barracks (segregated, of course, from the white fighters), with cots, lockers and chairs. The excellent cast- Gift Harris, Todd Risby, and Thomas Robert Simpson, portrayed the elder bombers (See above), recounting their younger days as fighter pilots, played by Luchan Baker, Clarkie; Ron Chapman, Roscoe; Brandon Callender, Nolan; Donald Ray Antoine, Buddy; David A. Cunningham, Leon; and Joseph Pendleton as Othel. To illustrate their missions, the actors arrange chairs to represent their cockpits. As the elder airmen recounted their experiences, their “younger selves” act them out. However, when describing their exploits as they themselves experienced them, they took us through them, miming the action as they spoke so effectively we could see the harrowing depictions in our mind’s eye. (Realistically shot in George Lucas’s production of the film, “Red Tails” based on the historic Tuskegee Airman.) It seemed odd that these guys totally accept a fellow pilot Roscoe (Ron Chapman) as a ventriloquist and his “dummy,” Julius, allowing Roscoe to voice his opinions through his “dummy”.
One of the memorable elements of Lee’s play is the evolving camaraderie among the black pilots and a couple of white pilots-a very young looking, yet earnest and believable, David Whitson, (full-disclosure: my cousin, William Robert Caldwell) and a seemingly older pilot, Roy Truman (a strong Kyle Goldman) who came unannounced to their barracks one night to introduce themselves. They share a precious bottle of cognac and get progressively wasted. One has the mistaken impression that one of the simplest things to portray as an actor is drunkenness. Wrong. These talented actors under Callender’s superb direction, slowly, gradually and naturally grew more inebriated as the scene progressed while maintaining their characters. Eventually, they see that their black counterparts, because of their record, are accepted into the Officers’ Club for drinks.
Below, right: Buddy (Donald Ray Antoine) shares a drink with Roy Truman (Kyle Goldman) and David Whitson (Will Caldwell)
Gene Thompson plays a white officer, General Lucas, who shows up every so often with a directive, but makes it clear that black pilots would never be allowed to shoot down enemy planes. He was mistaken, of course, as is illustrated in the play. The heavily male aspect of “Black Eagles” is softened by the serious romance between Buddy (honestly portrayed by Donald Ray Antoine) one of the Black Eagle pilots and a Sicilian woman, Pia, sensitively and believably played by the lithe, dark-haired, beauty, Margherita Ventura: One reason: her lilting native accent.
Armed forces segregation ended in 1948 under President Harry S. Truman’s watch. Still, from the war’s end in 1945 until then, prejudices against blacks in the military was rampant and in many cases, still is.
“Black Eagles” runs till 3/31 as follows: Sats 3/23-3/30 8PM; Sun: 3/24, 3/31 3PM General Seating, tickets $35.00. At the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter, SF; Powell Cable Car, Muni.
Donald Ray Antoine as Buddy and Margherita Ventura as Pia