Flyin' West | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

FLYIN' WEST, Onyx Theatre Ensemble, at the Edgewater Theatre Center. Atlanta writer Pearl Cleage's 1992 play--about a family of ex-slaves in all-black Nicodemus, Kansas, a century ago--is in many ways an old-fashioned melodrama, complete with plucky endangered heroine and hissable bad guy (the heroine's self-hating mulatto husband, who tries to take her land). But Cleage's droll humor, full-hearted characters, and passionate but never strident Afrocentric and feminist politics give the sensational plot a contemporary edge in this well-acted Chicago premiere.

Director Ron O.J. Parson creates a believably loving yet conflicted bond between the central characters, three sisters and an elderly matriarch who will do anything to protect their property from greedy white speculators. The cast--TaRon Patton, Lisa Jeffrey, and Michelle Wilson as the sisters, the marvelous Paulette McDaniels as aged Miss Leah, and Greg Hollimon and David W. Johnson as the men in their lives--finds the right mood for each moment, whether it's an affectionate portrait of domestic tenderness, a plainspoken reminiscence of slave-era degradations, a terrifying explosion of sexual violence, or a suspenseful showdown involving the villain and a piece of poisoned pie. Christine Pascual's period-perfect costumes and Lori Fong's evocative homestead set (complete with real soil and aromatic wheat stalks) support the finely textured performances with a rich sense of time and place, making this a vividly entertaining work of theatrical storytelling.

--Albert Williams

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