Harlem School of the Arts Raises the Bar

Last month, from April 9-16, the Harlem School of the Arts Theater Department presented “Flyin’ West” written by Pearl Cleage and directed by HAS faculty member, Willie Teacher. Set in Nicodemus, Kansas in 1898, the play follows the lives of African-American homesteaders in the American West. Immersed in the rapidly changing and cataclysmic landscape of the New West, the play explores topics of family, African-American liberation, and gender roles. Students ranging in age from 16-18 told the story of the lengths a family of women would go to in order to protect their interests, and their loved ones. The script presented a challenge for young actors to deliver weighty material with integrity and maturity. These HSA students rose to the occasion making strong character choices, and reflecting careful study and dedication to the work.

In the talk back after the play, they spoke frankly about the unusually long (5 month) commitment required for the play, and in retrospect reflected that though at times it was difficult to stay interested in the material, in the end they were glad that they had allowed themselves time to develop the piece. I was impressed by how articulate, professional, and informed they spoke about their work. Aside from the play, which spoke for itself in regards to artistic integrity, it is a testament to the strength theater program at HSA, as overseen by Theater Program Associate, Cherrye J. Davis and the instruction of Willie Teacher, that these young actors possessed a knowledge and respect for their craft that many don’t achieve until they are in college.

The play, though traditional in structure, addressed many issues including domestic violence, the role of women leaders in their families and the community, and perhaps most importantly, Cleage created the character of Miss Leah, the eldest of the women who speaks plainly and unsentimentally about her first hand account of slavery. Some of the most jarring material, which is so rarely represented on stage was in Miss Leah’s monologues. In one scene, Natisha Fields calmly explains how when she came of age, the overseer of the plantation “put James on me though I was only thirteen, but I was strong for my age.” While Miss Leah represents the past that this family was fleeing to make a new life in Kansas, the other sisters reflect other qualities that ensure their survival as landowning women of color. The characters are sometimes two dimensional, but they are acted with conviction by these young actresses making them accessible to the audience, and reminding us that these dark deeds in American history are not all that far in the past.