by Michael Bowen

There's a moment in Flyin' West when two women are lamenting the absence of a third woman, their sister. Seems that Minnie has gone off to London with her high-falutin' poet-husband to live in high society -- worlds removed from the Kansas homestead where Sophie and Fannie are trying to scratch out a living. In 1898, it's nearly inconceivable to these two black women that their sister would associate with white folks:

Fannie. It must be exciting. Museums and theaters all over the place. She said Frank did a public recital from his book and there were 50 people there.

Sophie. How many colored people were there?

Fannie. She didn't say.

Sophie. None! No! Two! Her and Frank.

The Onyx Theater Troupe gave a performance of Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West the other night. There were 38 people in the audience, every one of them white -- and two actresses onstage, both of them black.

Performing in such circumstances isn't preaching to the choir. It's preaching to people who would like to learn more about the choir, who'd like to support the choir and maybe join in singing.

No, this isn't preaching without a purpose. What this is, is a shame. Should black folks in Spokane rush over to the Civic just because some other black people are acting in a play? Of course not. But should more members of the black community around here take the time to support a production that testifies to the courage and endurance of black women and men a century ago? You bet they should.

So should a lot more of us. Plays about black history don't exactly dominate theater schedules today, and this bus doesn't drive by very often. Get on it when you can.

Cleage's play examines "some black people who went West," though there's much more to the story than that: 40,000 Negroes in the late 1870s, 7,000 more from Memphis alone in the 1890s, all lured by the Homestead Act's promise of 320 acres of "free" land. Of course, there was a little sweat equity involved in the deal: All told, a quarter-million single women worked the land, plowing and planting through endless hours. Most settled in Texas or Oklahoma, though Cleage sets her play in the historical black township of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Unfortunately, the Onyx production in the Civic's Studio Theater (through Nov. 16) is riddled with deficiencies. Bumbled lines, needless overacting, jarring music and leaden pacing all diminish the effect.

As Sophie, a gun-toting pioneer woman, Yolanda Everette-Neufville needs to be in better control of her lines. Sophie is an idealist, a leader who wants to build "a paradise for colored people" far away from any white folks, and she delivers a lot of impassioned speeches. With Everette-Neufville taking long, long pauses, all the anger and idealism drains out of her lines.

As Frank, the villain, Aaron Engeldinger chews the scenery, whining and grimacing. (He's not the sole offender.)

Cleage's play is firmly set in 1898: four of the six characters were born into slavery, and the look is rustic Victorian, with rifles leaning on potbelly stoves and bustles dominating women's fashions. Yet Director Irish Everette unwisely allows contemporary folk and R & amp;B music to intrude -- worst of all at the conclusion, when it overruns Cleage's intended final images of qualified triumph. Everette is also responsible for the slow tempo throughout. At two hours and 40 minutes, this show is half an hour longer than need be.

On the positive side, Charles Talley adds dignity as Wil Parish, the courteous and dependable foil to Frank's bad guy in the black hat. They're the opposing poles of African-American manhood. Alyssa Jordan shines in the various phases of Minnie: the elegant society lady, the battered wife, the resurgent pioneer woman.

Nik Adams' set accomplishes marvels: it packs a lot of homesteader detail into a multi-tiered, versatile space.

This is not a strong production overall, but there is one standout performance: Liz McAlpine as Miss Leah, an elderly woman born into slavery and subjected to its atrocities. At first she's just cranky ("I'm too old to feel good"), but McAlpine is up to the challenge of playing a woman whose sheer strength of will recalls the likes of Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks. She knows how to smirk through an extended joke, how to console and inspire her downtrodden relatives, how to complain and show favorites, how to hug the ones she loves.

By 1910, Western state governments had effectively decimated the ex-slaves' settlements: Jim Crow had migrated West. All of Sophie's hard work and Miss Leah's nearly superhuman endurance had gone for naught. The civil rights movement was another half-century off.

All of which is why more playgoers, both black and white, need to hear the story of how some brave women, to escape persecution and pursue freedom, once upon a time went Flyin' West.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.