Flyin’ West features first all-black cast



The first all-black cast at the University of Pittsburgh will perform “Flyin’ West” beginning Feb. 14.

By Casey Aquiline, For The Pitt News

“Flyin’ West,” a theatre production that showcases the lives of three female African-American pioneers, is taking the stage at Pitt for the second time in 25 years — and this time around, it is starring the first all-black student cast in the Theatre Arts Department’s history.

The play will be performed at the Henry Heymann Theatre, under the direction of Karen Gilmer, a professor in Pitt’s theater arts department, beginning this Thursday. After many long rehearsals, the cast is ready and Gilmer is excited for people to be able to see this story.

“I am most excited for the audience to see African-Americans making their way after slavery,” Gilmer said.

This isn’t the first time “Flyin’ West” has been produced at Pitt — the production premiered in Pittsburgh under the direction of Eileen Morris in the Charity Randall Theatre just under 25 years ago, in 1995. However, the cast then was not strictly made up of students.

According to a recent Tumblr post written by Megan Massanelli, Kuntu Repertory Theatre Project archivist, the show was initially produced by the Kuntu Repertory Theatre. This theater, founded in 1974 and based out of Pitt, was a platform for black students, staff and artists to come and work together in Pittsburgh, both on and off campus. The theater closed in 2013 due to a lack of funds.

“Flyin’ West,” set in 1898 Nicodemus, Kansas, tells the story of three black women who escape the violent South and head west as a result of the Homestead Act  — the 1862 act that granted acres of land to those who migrated westward.

The production showcases three sisters — Sophie, Fran and Mini, all of whom are experiencing a true taste of freedom for the first time in their lives. Actress Maya Boyd, a junior theatre arts major who plays the role of Mini, said this is a performance about learning how to live with newly acquired freedom.

According to Boyd, not all of the characters featured in the performance grew up as slaves. However, they all have been exposed to the hate and cruel treatment that black American women faced at this point in history.

“It is a story about life after being freed,” Boyd said. “Through love and through family, they are all trying to figure out what it means to be free in their own way.”

Gilmer said one of the challenges she faced during the one-month production process was the need to quickly build stable relationships among cast members, but the cast immediately formed these relationships.

“[The cast] formed a tight-knit group that built trust and fell back on that trust when they needed to,” Gilmer said.

Stage manager Sarah Sokolowski, a senior French and theatre arts major, agreed the bond exists among cast members.

“Given that for each of them it is their first experience in an all-black cast, they all inherently have something really special,” Sokolowski said. “The cast always does their warm-ups together, has learned to laugh over their mistakes and pushes each other to be their best.”

Boyd finds the play more realistic than previous productions she’s been in — most of her other roles were mystical or fantastical in nature. She said she is also able to relate more to her role in “Flyin’ West” compared to previous roles based on her personal experiences.

“It’s also the most relatable for me,” Boyd said. “Specifically in the scene where Miss Leah braids my hair, my mom used to do that for me all the time.”  

According to Gilmer, “Flyin’ West” is a production that addresses issues that are often pushed to the side in today’s world because they are difficult to discuss — racism and sexism. She said it was a challenge for the cast to portray characters dealing with such harsh realities.

“The show acknowledges colorism among African Americans, and additionally sexual abuse against women,” Gilmer said.

Since the show revolves around three strong African-American women, Gilmer and Boyd said black sisterhood is present throughout its entirety. Boyd said the sisters share an inseparable bond from the very start of the performance which exemplifies this.

“In the beginning of the play, the sisters do this ritual where they come together and pray about all of their love, courage and trust that they have between one another,” Boyd said.

While the three women at the center of “Flyin’ West” are considered sisters, it is not their blood that brings them together, Boyd said. Even though they aren’t all genetically related, they seem to share the relationship that exists between true sisters.

“They became sisters because of the things that they went through. I think it reaches beyond boundaries of blood and talks about how you can be literally family with people who you have experiences with,” Boyd said.

Boyd said the production defies typical media featuring black women, noting that the black characters are at the forefront of the plot.

“‘Flyin’ West’ showcases a lot of black culture in a way that is not stereotypical. In many other plays there is a stereotypical black woman who plays a nurse or a maid, but [in ‘Flyin’ West’] these are characters in the forefront,” Boyd said.

Although the production discusses difficult topics, the cast does not want that to turn the public away from coming to see the show. According to Gilmer, “Flyin’ West” provides viewers with the opportunity to learn and to be entertained.

“Viewers should expect to learn about a part of American history that is not really talked about in school,” Gilmer said. “Come, be entertained, see a really good story and walk out heavily moved.”

Boyd also encourages the public to come out and experience “Flyin’ West” for the sake of its historical importance as the first performance to feature an all-black cast here at Pitt.

“Not only is it a historical moment for us, but it’s also a historical moment for everyone in the room. I just want as many people as possible to be a part of that experience,” Boyd said.

“Flyin’ West” takes stage this Feb. 14 and will run Tuesday through Sunday until Feb. 24. Tickets are available for purchase online through the University’s Department of Theatre Arts website for as little as $12.

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