Flyin’ West takes its audience to 1898, in a homestead town populated by freed slaves. African-American women are at the center of the story, as they take on daunting challenges and strive to adapt to a newfound freedom.
Produced by EVOLVE Theatre Company, the play is showing for a single night, Saturday, as a gala tribute to Black History Month. An hour of music and dance precedes the 7 p.m. show at Pearl City Cultural Center.
Director Shervelle Bergholz said she was instantly attracted to “Flyin’ West” because of the strength of the female characters; they resonate with Bergolz’s own family background.
Sophie (Wendy Anderson) defies any stereotype of a meek 19th-century black woman, taking on land issues with steely grit. Miss Leah (Barbara Jackson) the elderly neighbor, is a vessel of generational knowledge, a storyteller wrought from tough fiber.
The play “deals with spousal abuse and colorism, and it addresses the importance of having a voice and having a tribe,” Bergolz said. “This play speaks to the trials and tribulations that we go through as black women, and shows that instead of trying to be strong on our own, we can be stronger together.”
TO PREPARE the cast for their roles and to elicit authenticity, Bergholz led discussions to help the actors find resonance with their characters, and to acknowledge the significance of those characters from historical and contemporary points of view.
Anderson said she liked the strong female characterizations in “Flyin’ West,” and the relevance of the play’s themes for society today.
“The play brings awareness to domestic violence,” she said. “If you feel stuck in a situation, there’s always a way out.”
The plot includes a character who remains in her abusive situation for the sake of status, but shows, Anderson said, that “you’re worth more than that.”
“Also, I like that all colors of people come together to make a community,” Anderson said.
“Materialistic stuff isn’t what’s important — it’s about coming together and making a community base that people as a whole can feel safe in.”
Jackson points to the historical and cultural importance of the play, in relation to her role as the feisty matriarch.
“Miss Leah is the historian who passes down oral stories of the strength and cunning wit it took for African American women to survive slavery in America,” Jackson noted.
“Miss Leah’s character is tasked with intertwining her existence as a free Negro woman with stories of her life as a former slave. She has a wealth of ‘mother wit’ that she passes down to the younger women in the play through her vivid stories. She also provides the knowledge of how to survive life as a Negro female pioneer and landowner to the younger women, who have adopted her into the role of surrogate mother.”
Rounding out the women in the cast are Minnie (Chanel Meadows), an abused wife, and Fannie (Mary Ann Shirley-Gray), a family peacemaker.
As for the men in the play, Curtis Duncan plays the abusive Frank, and J. Edward Murray portrays Wil Parish, a kind and loyal friend to the women.
As a director, Bergholz didn’t shy away from depicting the rawness of the abuse, even making use of a fight choreographer for one scene.
In fairytales, “the female needs a Prince Charming to come save her from whatever peril she’s in,” noted Anderson. “Black women don’t have that luxury, because we’ve always had to be strong and independent and hold the fort down as our men are incarcerated, killed or not present.”
However, she noted, Parish is a man who is strong and present; while assisting the women in his circle, he gives them space to appreciate their independence.
“Flyin’ West” weaves incredibly touching scenes and humor among the intense moments, Bergholz said.
“The beauty of the play,” Bergholz said, “is that amidst adversity, hope can be found.”
HAWAII WAS first introduced to playwright Pearl Cleage’s script at a 2018 public reading at Manoa Valley Theatre, in conjunction with a program called “Project1Voice: One Voice, One Play, One Day,” presenting the collective voice of displaced people of African heritage at staged presentations around the world.
“I had participated in that staged reading and I loved the story, and the audience’s reaction to it,” said Bergholz, who is also board president and a company actress at EVOLVE. “Some of the cast members from the reading said it would be great to perform it as a staged play. We kept asking people to direct it, and finally someone asked, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’”
The longtime actress surprised herself by saying yes to directing for the first time. She felt inspired after the reading resulted in meeting one of the descendants of African American female pioneers in the Kansas town of Nicodemus, where the play takes place.
“The woman talked about the historical significance of that town and how resilient we are as a people,” noted Bergholz. “We have overcome so much adversity in our history. This play is a celebration of that resilience.”
The encounter hit home for Bergholz, who grew up in one of the first all-black towns in the U.S., governed by and comprised of liberated slaves. Her grandfather served as the town’s mayor for 16 years and was a prominent civil rights leader in the Alabama region, securing funds from Gov. George Wallace and turning the place from a shantytown into one booming with enterprise.
“This is not just a play,” said Bergholz, “it’s going to be an experience of African American culture.
“Then we have a play that women can relate to, no matter what ethnicity or nationality,” she added.
Jackson said the play will give the audience a glimpse of what life was like for African Americans in post-Civil War America.
“As the curtain closes, I hope the audience feels the sense of strength it took — especially for single, unattached women — to venture out on their own and become independent and resourceful contributors to America’s story,” Jackson said.
“I hope the play conveys an understanding of the turmoil, the uneasy twists, and the complicated turns these Negro women had to endure as they found their way, as a freed people, into an unwelcoming American society. I want people to not only feel their spirit, but also to understand the sense of community and pride these pioneer women had.”
>> Where: Pearl City Cultural Center, 2388 Waimano Home Road
>> When: 7 p.m. Saturday; pre-show with African dance troupe Sew Fare and vocalist Christopher Lowe at 6 p.m.
>> Cost: $20-$35
>> Info: 342-0469, flyinwest.bpt.me