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'Flyin' West' worth the trip for touching tale of history

From left, Lolita Marie as Fannie, Kecia Campbell as Sophie and Darius McCall in "Flyin' West," on stage through April 25 at Bowie Playhouse.
From left, Lolita Marie as Fannie, Kecia Campbell as Sophie and Darius McCall in "Flyin' West," on stage through April 25 at Bowie Playhouse. (Bud Johnson, Baltimore Sun)

At Bowie Playhouse, a largely unknown history is being told in Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West" — the establishment and growth of the all-black Kansas town of Nicodemus, where in 1898 many of its homesteaders were women working their own land.

More than gripping history, Bowie Community Theatre's presentation brings touching human reality and down-home humor to this 1992 play.

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Concentrating on the courageous women pioneers, Cleage based her play on the migration of African-Americans to the Midwest after the 1860 passage of the Homestead Act, which offered land to any U.S. citizen willing to settle the frontier.

"Flyin' West" has a cast of six, headed by Miss Leah, a former slave who serves as the family matriarch for two younger women — Sophie and Fanny, sisters who moved to Nicodemus from Memphis, Tenn., years before to begin new lives.

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Sophie is deeply involved in all aspects of her town's future. Fanny tends to household chores — she makes better coffee than Sophie — and provides a gentle presence that includes welcoming neighbor homesteader Wil Parish as suitor.

A third sister, Minnie, returns home after living in less restrictive London with her husband, Frank Charles, who views homesteading as foolish and wants to sell off wife Minnie's portion of the family land for a quick profit. As a discontented mulatto son of a slaveowner, self-important and abusive to his wife, Frank is the villain in Cleage's generally uplifting play.

Through the expert direction of Estelle Miller, Bowie Community Theatre's "Flyin' West" production introduces audiences to these courageous women. Miller's dedication to history and respect for each character results in a play that both educates and fascinates.

Miller reports that she had spent more than a year learning all she could about the town of Nicodemus and the people who settled there.

She also encouraged her cast to research the subject to gain a better understanding of the history and the people, and urged them to reflect on their own personal experiences. Such efforts enrich the individual portrayals and make for the strongest ensemble of actors seen on the Bowie Playhouse stage in recent memory.

Every aspect of the production reflects a devotion to authenticity. The set design by Dan Lavanga presents a rugged, no-frills cabin in the open framing of two functional rooms, plus the front exterior. Lighting design by Garrett Hyde moves from early-morning light to the golden warmth of late afternoon and to early evening, subtly establishing mood.

The authentic costumes, designed by Gayle Negri and Jeanno Binney, help define each character.

Miss Leah, whose stories reveal to the younger women what it means to endure the brutalization of slavery, is eloquently portrayed by Sandra Cox True.

Equally strong is Kecia Campbell's portrayal of Sophie, communicating fierce determination to protect her land — and always certain to have her shotgun at hand. Campbell resonantly communicates Sophie's independence and powerful love of family.

These two deliver compelling portrayals that set the tone of "Flyin' West," heading an ensemble of actors, each of whom contributes a performance that helps flesh out the history with no false notes.

Winner of two Washington Area Theatre Community Honors awards, Lolita Marie makes a memorable Bowie debut as gentle young homesteader Fanny, who encourages her tentative suitor, Wil, and who clearly understands Minnie's attachment to her abusive husband.

Although her only previous acting experience was in church plays, Brawnlyn Blueitt, a native Texan now living to Maryland, is fully credible on stage as Minnie.

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Blueitt conveys the strength and dignity that lie in Minnie's personality, hidden beneath her willingness to accept blame for her husband's anger.

The two male roles are well-played by gifted actors. As Wil Parish, Darius McCall reflects his character's ability to overcome the obstacles of frontier life. McCall has been nominated for two Washington Area Theatre Community Honors (WATCH) Awards, one for his portrayal of Franco Wicks in Colonial Players' "Superior Donuts." A graduate of Gallaudet University, he is known in the deaf community as Prinz-D, the first deaf rapper.

Ben Harris delivers an insightful portrayal of the despicable Frank Charles. Harris is remembered at Bowie Playhouse for his leading roles in 2nd Star musicals: as Curly in "Oklahoma" and as Sir Lancelot in "Camelot."

Bowie Community Theatre's "Flyin' West" continues weekends through April 25. Call 301-805-0219 or go to bctheatre.com for tickets. Bowie Playhouse is located at 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie.

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