It seems a bit redundant as you watch all four characters representing the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the American military, go through their initial flight drills, specifically landing an outdated, difficult aircraft, in turn.
Director Ricardo Khan — one of the Tony Award-winning Crossroad Theater’s founders — puts a lot of emphasis on movement and theatrics in his production of “Fly,” a play about the airmen he co-wrote with Trey Ellis. Going through their exercises on the New Brunswick stage, the actors playing the trainees remind you of children playing “Airplane,” pulling and pushing on imaginary levers to elevate and level their stubborn flying machines and making muscular, friction-fighting arm gestures, intense grimaces, and jerky body movements as they mime the operation of an airplane.
Except they’re not children and they’re not simulating. They’re members of the U.S. Army Air Corps learning to be combat pilots under the watchful eye of a skeptical instructor who warns them he will “wash out” any of them for the pettiest infraction and who is full of disdain and prejudice toward the African-Americans included in the flyer’s program.
One trainee kisses his palm and touches the ground as he alights from the plane. The instructor is not beyond using the infamous “n” word, which elicits a gasp from the Crossroads audience, or taunting in ways that are based primarily on race.
Later, when the three Airmen who have passed the instructor’s begrudging muster and are full-fledged pilots, the same gestures and grimaces are used, but they no longer seem comic or repetitive.
The men are in mortal combat over Hanover, Berlin, and other German land. They are escorts protecting bombers by sniping Axis aircraft poised to kill anything American.
Instead of calmly watching what resembles a game, we become as intense at the pilots. The stakes and the suspense Khan builds are high. We see men we have come to know and love fighting for their lives and are keenly immersed in their fates.
The tension is genuinely overwhelming. Actors are no longer simulating gestures. Characters are risking all in sequences that are exciting and fraught with fear and dread. We are so invested in them and their success and survival as people, our attention is riveted to every nuance. The atmosphere in Crossroads thickens with apprehension and fervent hope for a happy and victorious outcome.
The two scenes involving the airmen in their planes follow a pattern Khan, more as director than author, employs throughout his theatrically creative, absorbing production. On several fronts, he builds general, amorphous passages into taut and gripping situations that move us from sincere but mild interest to thoroughly involved passion about the men, their mission, and their living to receive due recognition for their contribution and bravery. “Fly” accomplishes what one would hope would take root in everyday life.
It ceases to be a play about African-American striving and becomes a tribute to men who broke through entrenched racial barriers to demonstrate how little pigment matters when fulfilling a critical job. Racism doesn’t disappear, but it is rendered foolish and irrelevant.
Khan and Ellis’s play keeps evolving. When we first meet the four men standing for all who fought in the 332nd Fighter Group, they are a disparate quartet that has to get past their own infighting and unfriendly reactions to cohere into a staunchly unified group.
We see that process clearly, as Khan and Ellis depict urban versus country attitudes, a New York-Chicago rivalry, and a West Indian trainee to denote the differences, prejudices, and tolerances within the Airmen themselves. As in the flight scenes, the comic, rough-and-tumble tone grows to a serious, affecting pitch as the men become a close, loyal unit dedicated to helping each other get through the war. In all segments of “Fly” looseness becomes tight, and one-upmanship and nonchalance become poignantly one-for-all-and-all-for one.
This includes the airmen’s relationship with white bombardiers they are shielding from Nazi attack. Khan and Ellis start by showing how bigotry impedes and end by depicting how a common cause creates bonds and foments respect, though possibly situational and temporary.
One of the more jerry-rigged sequences involves a white bomber apologizing to his black escorts because his father took part in a lynching. The scene is awkward, the racism the pilot is ruing thrown in for effect while the racism that registers is the man’s gall in thinking the airmen would do anything less than their job whatever his family history. A story about one airman attending the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama also seems tacked on in an unnecessary, if uplifting, way.
Among Khan’s inspirations is including a tap dancer who expresses the emotions of the airmen as they embark on their historical destiny. Omar Edwards rhythmically and physically expresses the angst and anger accumulated by years of slavery, as depicted on Clint Allen’s evocative projections on Beowulf Boritt’s versatile set featuring screens in a propeller pattern to accommodate Allen’s edifying graphics. Edwards is captivating as he goes through insistent paces that become more exciting when Khan’s excellent cast joins in with Hope Clarke’s powerfully vibrant choreography.
The cast of “Fly” is a cohesive ensemble that enhances one another and demonstrates acute individual and collaborative sharpness. In this superb group are Brooks Brantley, Ross Cowan, Edwards, Anthony J. Goes, Brandon Nagle, Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson, and Terrell Wheeler. Lighting designers Rui Rita and Jake De Groot, make the battle scenes tangentially real.
Fly, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Ends Sunday, April 17, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday at 3. $45. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.