Theater : The battles of the Tuskegee Airmen
A lone dancer takes the stage, and as he moves, embodies an airplane. Starting with slow taps that build in rhythm, his arms spinning like propeller blades, his movement imitates the motion of a plane roaring down a runway towards lift-off.
The play "FLY," originally commissioned by Lincoln Center, follows the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American flying unit in the United States military, during that time when the Air Force was segregated. The play opens tonight at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Islander Jim McLaurin, who flew with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, watches the rehearsal of the show's tap dancing narrator, and nods his head in approval and laughs.
Mr. McLaurin, who will attend opening night, volunteered to work with the actors and to talk with Mr. Khan about being a Tuskegee Airmen.
"We weren't getting respect, but we were satisfied that we had the opportunity to do what we loved doing," said Mr. McLaurin. "Flying was the priority. Regardless of the discrimination we received in the States and how the white troops felt about us, we were very persistent."
Directed by Ricardo Khan, the artistic director of Crossroads, a Tony-winning regional theater in New Jersey, "FLY" begins in the present, with the inauguration of Barack Obama, and moves back in time to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. The choreography, by Broadway veteran Hope Clark, articulates much of that story through movement.
In 1941, the Army Air Corps reluctantly formed an all-black pursuit squadron. The pilots gradually earned a legendary reputation.
"The recognition of our accomplishments made us a pursuit squadron," said Mr. McLaurin. "We were assigned to escort bombers, and we never lost a bomber. Word got out, and that's when they called us the Red Tail Black Angels."
Despite their successes, there was almost no direct contact between the Tuskegee Airmen and their white counterparts. Benjamin O. Davis, the Tuskegee's captain, reported that in his four years he attended West Point not a single white student talked to him.
"We were a group, close-knit," said Mr. McLaurin. "All friends regardless of where you were from. We were a team that helped one another and we dedicated ourselves to our work."