This is the story of four African-American women who left the South after the failures of Reconstruction, and headed west. Three sisters and an older friend that they met in the all Black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, are trying to try to find a better life for themselves.
The American West was the hope of many souls. With the support of the Homestead Act, doors were open for those who would venture west, to start anew … if they could handle the demands of the challenging environments in a raw, loosely settled land. But this story begins after the move. It takes place in 1898, some years after the four settled in the backwater town of Nicodemus, Kansas. It is not the fantasy west of Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hitchcock, or even Annie Oakley. But although this story is historical fiction, these people are more real than those western legends. These women represent those pioneers who ventured west to begin a new life, where a black skin was not a detriment. Pearl Cleage’s fascinating play is less myth and more about real people.
Fannie, Sophie, and Minnie bought their property a few years earlier. Living with them is Miss Leah, as she is older and needs assistance. Minnie actually left a to return east to Memphis and has now come back with her husband, Frank. Seems simple enough–it’s not.
During the 1890’s, the land that they bought was cheap. The Kansas settlement was uniquely African-American. But now, the land has risen in value. White speculators are trying to buy out the early settlers, thereby changing the nature of the town where those pioneers achieved independence. And Frank, son of a white man and a Black woman, who seeks to pass for white, is one of those men who wants to make money by forcing the sisters to sell Minnie’s share.
That is the edge of the conflict, but what drives the play are the old Miss Leah, once a slave who was forced to give up the children she bore, and Sophie, the sister who wants no part of the white world and stubbornly fights against the likes of Frank. They are strong in different ways and that is the beauty of the tale.
Under the direction of Zuhairah McGill, the portrayals are powerful. Deanna S. Wright as Sophie is mesmerizing. It’s hard to take our eyes off her to see her reaction to all that transpires. There is kindness in the likes of one of the men played by Phillip Brown just as there is abuse that spews from Frank (Dax Richardson). And McGill herself plays the both simple and complex, dramatic and comedic role of Miss Leah. She’s great!
The story is riveting. It explores racism and sexism in America at the end of the 19th century. Cleage has created a fine piece of drama and Quintessence presents it superbly.
“Flyin’ West” at Quintessence Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., Phila, PA 19119, 215-987-4450. http://www.quintessencetheatre.org Thru July 3, 2022.