All the Fighting 90th Tuskegee Airmen wanted was an opportunity to serve.
And in “Black Eagles,” the play by Leslie Lee and directed by L. Peter Callender, we see the challenges prejudicial notions of courage and patriotism of World War II.
Currently staged by the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, the story is told through older and younger versions of the same character.
The elders reflect in flashbacks – the younger men, including one ventriloquit’s dummy, are disciplined, recognize the bigotry and do not allow racism to divide their ranks or undermine their worth.
What happened at Port Chicago in 1944 was replicated on military bases throughout this country and in international theatres. Racism is a uniquely American export even in Nazi Germany, which made the Marine’s Memorial Theatre a perfect setting for Lee’s work.
Add to that Bertram Clark’s decorative Tuskegee Airman and African American WWII posters, photos and artifacts and the performance has a larger resonance when patrons walk into the theatre lobby, stand at the concession stand and look out the window nearby. Black history is everywhere.
The cast is excellent. The energy and excitement of youth balanced with the wisdom of age gives the audience a perspective on military life the younger selves have not lived yet. While stationed in Italy in 1944, the Tuskegee airmen escort white fighter pilots with less flight experience when, technically, if all were fair, the reverse would have been true.
America is at war, at war both domestically and globally, yet the men are optimistic that they will get a chance to prove their humanity. Strange how death validates life. The Black Eagles are also young and as youth, they know how to have fun.
The jitterbug drill is a moment in the play that you don’t want to miss. Choreographed by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, the men are steppin’ tall, steppin’ with pride.
Another wonderful moment is when the Black officers call on the white officers, their peers, to challenge the unfair restrictions on black soldiers.
Of particular intrigue to this writer was the character Roscoe (portrayed by Ron Chapman), a ventriloquist who plays with a doll. I don’t know how many soldiers share their vulnerabilities through such a vehicle, but it works.
The play closes March 31, with two shows: Sat., at 8 p.m., 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA. The nearest BART Station is Powell.
For tickets visit African-AmericanShakes.org or (800) 838.3006. To listen to an interview with the director, visit http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2019/03/20/wandas-picks-radio-show