Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Black Eagles: Trouble at Liftoff

Black Eagles

By Leslie Lee
Directed by L. Peter Callender
African-American Shakespeare Company
Marines Memorial Theatre / 609 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94102

Saturday and Sundays Until March 31, 2019

Above photo: Back row L-R: Luchan Baker, Ron Chapman, Donald Antoine; second row L-R: Devin Cunningham, Joseph Pendleton; front/center: Brandon Callender. Photo: L. Peter Callender

Reviewed by Christine Okon

African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of Leslie Lee’s Black Eagles is fittingly staged at that beautiful and revered bastion of military history, Marines' Memorial Theater.

The play begins with three elderly gentleman at a banquet in the late 1980s reminiscing about their WWII experiences as members of  the first all-black Army Air Force squadron of fighter pilots known as "The Tuskegee Airmen" or “The Fighting 99th.” The men are joined by their younger selves who bring the memories to life, laying out a predictable structure of back-and-forth reminiscing and staging that keeps the play at the level of storytelling than drama.

Elder Eagles (rear, Thomas Robert Simpson, Gift Harris, Todd Risby) Photo: Joseph Giammarco

Like weathered fisherman bragging about their catches, Elder Clarke (amiable Gift Harris), Elder Nolan (thoughtful Todd Risby) and Elder Leon (distinguished Thomas Robert Simpson) banter and argue about details of flight missions, aerial maneuvers, killing “Jerries,” losing friends and missing loved ones. Despite the racist military rules (such being denied admission to the white officer’s club) that blocked their full participation on the base,  they could be themselves amongst each other, away from the stateside clutches of Jim Crow.

EAGLES (Brandon Callender, Joseph Pendleton, Devin Cunningham, Luchan Baker III) Photo: Joseph  Giammarco
The six young soldiers--Clarkie (Luchan Baker), Roscoe (Ron Chapman), Nolan (Brandon Callender), Buddy (Donald Ray Antoine), Leon (Devin A. Cunningham) and Othel (Joseph Pendleton)--look sharp in their pressed khakis as they argue, chide, and laugh like the tight band of brothers they are. They engage in some aerial missions (hard to stage dynamically), argue about why the hell they are there, and snap to attention when General Lucas (a convincing Gene Thompson) enters the room and tells them that he wants to up his military stars to three if the “experiment” (about whether black men can make good fighter pilots),” for which he is “putting his ass on the line,” succeeds. Except for the really fun and hopping “Jitterbug Drill” and Nolan’s meeting with his Italian girlfriend Pia (Margherita Ventura), who establishes hat yes, they are fighting on the WWII Italian front), the first act circles around the runway without ever taking off, and a few heads were nodding in the audience.

General Lucas (Gene Thompson) give the Black Eagles their flying orders. Photo: Joseph Giammarco
Act II manages to lift off into the wild blue yonder and seems like a different play. There is more dialog, intent, desire and purpose. Two good-natured white soldiers--Dave Whitson (William Robert Caldwell, awkward but well-meaning) and Roy Truman (Kyle Goldman, with a Jimmy Stewart aw-schucksness)--pay a friendly visit and are immediately suspected by the Eagles. One of the Eagles pulls out a bottle of special cognac, but the proper civilized “savoring” quickly descends into a pass-the-bottle swill fest. The Black Eagles shout their pride, with Truman and Caldwell declaring themselves the "White Eagles". It seems like one team, but the sad reality is that the white pilots have far less training than the blacks yet have juicier, real combat flight assignments.

The camaraderie of the black soldiers brings a lot of energy to the scenes, and I wish the play had more of that. Some of the actors were strong and others not, with the effect being like high performance tires with small leaks. The cast has potential but the script is a scaffolding of historical trivia, which does not allow for momentum or exploration. But as an homage to the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, Black Eagles is an enlightening slice of American history.

Tuskegee ELDERS (Center) reminisce about their younger years in Italy, 1944. Photo: Jospeh Giammarco
Director L Peter Callender, who performed in the original production of Black Eagles years ago, brings much love to this earnest production which unfortunately never quite gains the altitude of powerful drama.

Black Eagles
Written by Leslie Lee. Directed by L. Peter Callender. Through March 31. Two hours with 15-minute intermission. Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St, S.F.

Elder Clarkie — Gift Harris
Elder Leon — Thomas Robert Simpson
Clarkie — Luchan Baker
Nolan — Brandon Callender
Leon — Devin A. Cunningham
Pia — Margherita Ventura
Roy Truman — Kyle Goldman
Elder Nolan — Todd Risby
General Lucas — Gene Thompson
Roscoe — Ron Chapman
Buddy — Donald Ray Antoine
Othel — Joseph Pendleton
Dave Whitson — William Robert Caldwell

Director — L. Peter Callender
Stage Manager — Arashi Veronica Cesana
Lighting Designer — Kevin Myrick
Costume Designer — Sarah Smith
Production Manager & Props Manager — Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Set Designer — Kate Boyd
Sound Designer — Everett Elton Bradman
Choreographer — Kendra Kimbrough Barnes

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