IRT: A ‘West’ we don’t often see

By John Lyle Belden

Just northwest of the center of the state of Kansas is a little town called Nicodemus.

Today it is a National Historic Site, and for good reason. This is living proof that it wasn’t just White families who settled the American West. Many Blacks sought true freedom under the Homestead Act, with, in this case, the help of the Nicodemus Town Company. In “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, we see an imagined family who held their own land there.

Circumstances including escaping racially-motivated riots in Memphis brought three sisters – Sophie (Lakesha Lorene), Fannie (L’Oreal Lampley), and Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane) – to claim their own stake. On neighboring acres, elderly Miss Leah (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) kept the farm after her husband passed.

Sophie, gun on her hip to fend off pests in both animal and human form, prepares for winter and to pass a resolution in town to fend off (White) land speculators.  She is persuading Miss Leah to stay on at their homestead, while Fannie is about to be swept off her feet by neighbor Will Parish (Enoch King) if he can sum up the gumption to court her properly. Minnie has recently arrived with her husband Frank Charles (Allen Tedder), whose pale skin masks his slave upbringing. The couple had been living in London, England, where social acceptance came easier, but they hardly saw another with African skin. Frank, eager to get back there, awaits word on a possible inheritance from his father’s estate in New Orleans. Somehow, Minnie also arrived with a bruise around her eye.

Cleage’s compelling drama combines timeless themes of family, dealing with the effects of violence and slavery, and the power of sisterhood in even the most challenging environment. The women’s  performances embody many forms of tested strength, which work together to do what must be done. King plays Will as a rock-solid support without being controlling – in contrast to Tedder’s turn as despicable Frank.

Stories and situations of family drama played out often in these times and places; there’s more to the West than the OK Corral, with a lot more diversity among those involved than our histories and media suggest.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this production includes a deceptively simple-looking turntable set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that suggests a cozy cabin without the obstruction of outer walls, as well as an excellent hand-painted background by Claire Dana, also masterful in its simplicity.

Performances run through Feb. 4 on the IRT Mainstage at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at irtlive.com.

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