BOTTOM LINE: An important story told by a group of talented actors; the good outweighs the bad in this under-explored production.
I am a firm believer that the best theatre comes out of collaboration and that it is usually better to dole out artistic responsibilities rather than let one person do it all. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule (Lin-Manual Miranda, playwright and star of the musical In The Heights is a good example), but it’s always beneficial to have several artistic eyes on one piece of theatre. The new off-Broadway drama Black Angels Over Tuskegee has many outstanding qualities, but it is written by, directed by, and starring the same man, Layon Gray, and it’s hard to wear all three hats perfectly.
Here’s what’s good about this show. It is without any hesitation at all that I suggest this production for anyone with an interest in African American history. This is a significant story and one that is often overlooked when the progress of civil rights in this country is reflected upon. Black Angels tells the narrative of six fictional men in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II — and their struggle to get there. It is based on a true story: the Tuskegee Airmen fought tooth and nail to get accepted to the Army and then had to prove themselves further on the base before finally being allowed to ship out and fight overseas. The persecution and segregation at a time in our not-too-distant past is viscerally displayed in this production as the audience watches what these men endure to prove themselves equal to their white counterparts. But just like the real Tuskegee Airmen succeeded, so too do the characters in Black Angels, and they form intimate relationships with each other in the process.
Act One takes place in Utah where the six strangers find themselves together. They have gathered to take the entrance exam that will gain them admission to the Air Forces. The test is highly technical and they must excel with tremendous academic mastery to even be allowed to train at Tuskegee. Immediately, the odds are stacked against them — not in any intellectual capacity, these men are certainly qualified — but because they are black, and not considered capable. Thus, they are made to wait for hours in a cold room for the assumed enjoyment of the test supervisors (Army personnel?) — it is in these hours that they meet one another and that the audience learns about these six unique men. The first part of Act Two takes place in Tuskegee, Alabama in the Army barracks. The men complete their training, receive their wings and get ready to ship out to Casablanca to fight. The second part of the act occurs overseas (first in Northern Africa and then in Europe) as the men participate in combat.
Black Angels is really a character study of these disparate men and the circumstances that bring them together. The don’t all get along, yet they all find common ground with one another and eventually form a bond that they consider as strong as any family. They face hardships together and learn about personal tragedies that shape their lives. And the audience builds a friendship with them as well. These are six likeable guys, even on their bad days. Gray’s script is compassionate and sincere — it enables the actors to develop characters rooted in emotional reality and thus present a truly moving narrative.
The acting is solid across the board, and this enables these men to stand firm as their characters. Every performance deserves merit, but especially moving are Thom Scott II as Abraham, the protective older brother of Quentin (played by Gray), and Demetrius Gross as Percival. But really it’s an ensemble show and as the characters embrace one another at the base and then overseas, the actors embrace each other on stage. You can tell they are a team in telling this story.
What’s not so great about Black Angels really translates to the production value and the escapism it would be nice to experience as the story unfolds. Although I certainly believed that the actors were their characters, I was never able to believe that what I was watching was anything more than a shoddy demonstration of what these scenarios might look like. The production design (lights, set, and sound included) is certainly satisfactory, but it is never able to transport the action to the location in question. I think a story like this would best be served with creative attention placed on the visual storytelling, rather than just ”setting the scene.”
Another flaw is the direction, frequently pandering and generally overstated. For example, when a character places a photo of his doting wife next to his cot, he would likely angle the photo toward the cot, rather than the opposite direction, out to the audience. At the same time, emotional moments don’t always need to happen in a spotlight, downstage center. Good direction is rarely noticed, but not-so-great direction sticks out like a sore thumb. I mean no offense to Gray’s ability as a director; I can certainly understand that re-writes and his own character development could make the direction third in line on the priority scale. Perhaps Black Angels could have benefited from a separate director who was able to imagine the story in another light.
Black Angels is a consequential story, told through a captivating narrative and painted with a respectful brush. Gray’s writing is both astute and playful, making for exceptional characterization. It’s definitely worth seeing for the story itself, and is especially important given its theme. Take the kids — it’s not a kids show but whatever your race it will open an important dialogue. Unfortunately, the production value doesn’t match the play itself and thus, the experience is somewhat cheapened. But the show is off-Broadway, tickets aren’t expensive, and this message should trump the entertainment value anyway. It’s evident that this show is Gray’s labor of love, and it’s to his credit that this story, based on truth, can be remembered and honored today.
(Black Angels Over Tuskegee plays at St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through March 28th. Performances are Monday at 8pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $31.50-$56.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)