The Department of Theatre and Dance will present its first production of the season next week.
“Flyin’ West,” a play by Pearl Cleague, is set in Kansas in 1898 and follows the lives of four African-American women after they migrate west to become landowning farmers.
“Anytime we can talk about America and its progress is very important,” said Tori Lee Averett, chair of the department.
“The talk of American progress is in the air because it’s an election year … We as a country are perched on this idea of ‘What’s the next step?’ ”
Quinton Cockrell, associate professor of performance, serves as the director of the production. Cockrell said that the historical significance of the play was a large factor in his decision to direct it.
“I am shocked on a daily basis how little people, especially students, know about history,” Cockrell said.
“And I think if people did understand history, we wouldn’t be in some of the political messes we’re in now … We can’t move forward until we know where we’ve been.”
Cockrell said that this play highlights “a part of history that is often forgotten.
“When I was growing up, it was all about the West, and Western movies and cowboys,” Cockrell said. “(Cleague) wanted to say that black people were a part of this, too.”
The cast agreed that the historical narrative, centered around post-Civil War America, is important to collegiate audiences.
“It’s a time in our history that kind of gets brushed over sometimes,” said Christian Carlson, a junior theater major from Brewton. “When we talked about it in school, it was just a vocabulary term.
“As far as I knew, it was a small part of history, but this play really shows how major it was.”
The play has an all-black cast with the exception of one student. Carlson is playing a character who, in the world of the play, is commonly thought to be white, but is actually a light-skinned African-American.
Cockrell said that Carlson, the lone white actor in the play, has fit in with his cast mates without a problem.
“It was essential because it’s spoken about so often in the play,” Cockrell said. “The cast, without my prompting, just sort of adopted Christian and tried to expose him to black culture.”
“It’s been an internal challenge for me … I have to be really conscious about the choices I make,” Carlson said. “Representing a group of people that I’m not a part of has been an interesting challenge.”
Carlson plays Frank, the verbally abusive husband of Minnie, and said that he learned a lot from being in this role and in this production.
“You really have to experience something before you can understand it,” Carlson said — “especially playing a character like Frank.”
The cast attributes the show’s success to the strength of the script.
“Cleague really is a storyteller,” said Kezia Moore, a junior theater major from Montgomery, who plays Sophie. “And all of the characters have their own different way of telling that story.”
“Usually, in black plays, you have the ‘evil white man,’ ” said Miché Smith, a sophomore theater major from Goshen, Mississippi, who portrays Minnie. “And I think (Cleague) wanted to show the evil inside all of us.”
Cockrell and the cast agree that the show tells the story of finding freedom.
“Everybody in this show has their own journey to freedom,” Moore said. “Their own stories and own struggles all intertwine … But at the end of the day, they are all a family, and they all come together.”
“It’s about the importance of hope and asking, ‘What is it that makes us feel free?’ ” Cockrell said. “That idea of flying is the ultimate image of freedom.
“I want people to leave their seats and take flight with these characters.”
“Flyin’ West” will be in the Trojan Center Theatre from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, starting at 7 every night. General admission is $5.
Tickets can be purchased at the Trojan Center Box Office (located by Barnes and Noble). or online at troytheatre.org.