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Creating acceptance through flight

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

Ford's Theatre is launching its second year of the Lincoln Legacy Project, a multiyear initiative designed to stimulate dialogue around the issues of equality, tolerance and acceptance, with the first production of its 2012-2013 season, "Fly."

"Fly" refers to the development of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the United States. Before the existence of this group, African-American men were not permitted to fly for the U. S. military, although they had served with distinction fighting for their country through and after the Civil War. But after the creation of an African-American pursuit squadron at Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941, the program became the center for African-American aviation during World War II.

The play, by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, centers around four young airmen who meet at Tuskegee to begin their flight training. Directed at a swift pace by Khan, "Fly" depicts the four as coming from different backgrounds and different parts of the world: Chicago, Ill., the Caribbean, Harlem and Iowa. And their personalities are as different as their hometowns. At first they act out their mistrust of one another.

Yet as they begin to take classes, fly planes and socialize together, W.W. (Eric Berryman), Oscar (Mark Hairston), J. Allen (Damian Thompson) and Chet (Christopher Wilson) grow to trust each other until they are an inseparable group, ready to do anything to protect their program and one other.

Onstage
Fly
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th Street NW
When: Through Oct. 21
Info: Tickets start at $15; 800-982-2787; fords.org

The excellent ensemble of actors is joined by the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), an extraordinarily gifted tap dancer who acts out with his feet, body and tap shoes the moods and emotions of various scenes. The addition of the Tap Griot, smoothly choreographed by Hope Clarke, was a masterstroke, as his presence lights up the central story of camaraderie, giving it a second, almost poetic presence. The set, by Beowulf Boritt, is an essential element in this production. Seven large, four-sided panels stretch out in an arch across the stage. Rui Rita's lighting design makes them blue with puffy white clouds.

But in the second act, when the airmen are in serious dogfights with their German counterparts, the panels become the cockpits of the airmen's planes, revealing the enemy planes surrounding them. Boritt and Rita create a tremendously realistic sense of enclosure and claustrophobia. John Gromada's original music and sound design is woven effectively into songs of the era.

"Fly" is intriguing not only as good theater about bonding and esprit de corps. It also delivers a superb message about how a relatively small group of men had a massive impact on civil rights in America.

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