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Shackles and Flight 

Charlayne Woodard’s play about getting through the dark

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
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Photo by Craig SchwartzGeared for a youth audience, Charlayne Woodard’s entrancing, sometimes pedantic, new play, Flight (at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theater) is set on an 1858 Georgia plantation, where slaves tell stories. That’s pretty much the entire play. In her first work for other actors, Woodard — known for her solo performances (In Real Life, Neat and Pretty Fire) — structures Flight as a succession of yarns told and enacted by a company of five, accompanied by a percussionist (Ameenah Kaplan) and Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’s original music. There are also interludes of dance, pleasingly choreographed by Otis Salid. And though each saga has its own drama, there’s no central action linking the string of pearls. In its place, Woodard supplies a poetical context: A woman named Sadie has just been sold — punishment by the plantation owner for her crime of reading. Her livid field-hand husband, Nate (Frank Faucette), bursts in waving a machete and threatening rebellion, while their 5-year-old son, Li’l Jim, sits offstage, high in a tree, reclusive, watching the adults cope with the darkness of their lives. The play is laced with biblical allusions to light and dark, to God and the devil, to night and the dawn. And so, failing to coax the boy down from the tree, and straining to contain their fury over Sadie, Nate and a gardener (Julanne Chidi Hill), an elderly blacksmith (Meshach Taylor), a conjurer (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and another field hand (Chastity Dotson) pass the night telling stories. Some are based on recent memories — the heroism of Sadie giving birth, for instance. Others are myths far-flung from Africa. But Woodard’s driving concern homes in on the process through which experiences get tugged and pulled into fictions, like wet clay into pottery. And then the best of those fictions, through repetition and embellishment, turn into fables; and the best fables into legends; and the most useful or memorable of those legends become framed into what, a century later, will come to be called history — the blending of a literary process with identity politics that transforms indignity into pride. This is why the play is called Flight. Sadie’s crime of reading is particularly salient, and not just because the plantation owner understands the power of literacy, but also because of how Woodard understands the limitations of oral storytelling for the preservation of a culture. In the same decade as Flight unfolds, a trilingual, expatriated Scot named Hugo Reid published a series of letters in our then paper of record The Los Angeles Star as part of an attempt to preserve the memory of the local Gabrieleno (Tongva) tribe’s dying culture. To scan Reid’s transliterations of Tongva vocabulary is to pry open the tomb of a lost civilization — “Yang-na: Los Angeles; Sibag-na: San Gabriel; Sonag-na: Mr. White’s Farm; Cahueg-na: Cahuenga” — all almost evaporated because the Tongva neither wrote down nor read the stories of their lives. Thanks entirely to Reid and his determination to set pen to paper, modern Tongva descendants are resurrecting their ancestors’ language and customs. The winds of time eventually snuff the spoken word like a flame, but the written word leaves a record that something happened, and that somebody was here. This is why, 70 years after Reid, W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory traveled muddy and pitted Irish back roads, collecting folk stories directly from the folk and committing them to paper. Theirs was not just a literary exercise but a political one — a point beautifully dramatized by Brian Friel in his play Translations: When Cromwell plans to enslave the rural Irish, he first sends engineers and translators to change the signposts from Celtic to English. When locals lose the written word, they literally don’t know where or who they are in their own backyard. And that is what Flight was imploring a theater-full of seventh-graders on the morning I attended: Learn to read and write. It’s more serious than you could possibly imagine. Flight, however, appearing in the first season of the Center Theater Group in which Gordon Davidson is not artistic director, emerges as a kind of testament to the paradoxically soulful and sometimes thick-headed legacy of Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum — the primary CTG theater he ran since 1967. (Davidson continues in an advisory capacity at CTG until 2007.) Its director, Robert Egan, who’s no longer on the CTG staff but is very much embedded in its history, developed Flight at the Ojai Playwrights Festival. One moment in Flight — a confrontation between the gardener Alma and Nate — takes on the tone of a biblical allegory for vengeance and gang violence. Alma admits she saw Sadie reading but failed to act quickly enough to protect her from the plantation owner. Intending to beat if not kill Alma for her negligence, Nate explodes: “She doesn’t deserve to live!” The old conjurer, Oh Beah, intercedes like a minister: “Is the fightin’ and killin’ going to make it all right?” she repeats. “Is it going to bring Sadie back?” Just in case the audience is too dim to know the correct answer to a rhetorical question, Nate and Alma provide it for them: “No, ma’am,” they both intone. This tiny moment of overstatement emerges as the embodiment of everything that was ever right and wrong about the Taper: the profound, rare love and concern for the local community, the conviction that theater must be an instrument for teaching — preaching — social justice, that it must reach out to the underserved and the unknowing, it must bring them onto the dark stage and show them the light. Flight’s old conjurer conjures recollections of the Taper’s Zoot Suit and Black Elk Speaks, plays about L.A.’s Latinos and America’s native tribes, plays with crystalline and indignant delineations of right and wrong, and agendas to make the necessary social corrections for the sake of a better world. Flight’s equivalent comes in a play-closing scene in a field. A slave-woman, having given birth days ago, cradles her infant while working in the field. For her indiscretion of speaking while working, she’s whipped almost literally into the ground — a generically artless picture of oppression, regardless of its historical veracity. Storytelling allows flight, the play tells us, without considering for a moment that storytelling stifles as much truth as it releases. PR is the business of fiction, and our primary agent of legend-making. Every government has a firm — if not an entire press corps — paid for and propping it up with half-truths and deceits: the bodies not counted, the moneys not accounted for, the firing of truth-tellers, the shaming of war heroes. This, too, is storytelling, and the writing of history. Throughout Flight, I kept thinking of John Millington Synge’s 1907 Irish comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, in which an arrogant kid stumbles into a village admitting to having just killed his father — a confession that turns to boasting as he’s glorified by the locals for his deed — until his raging da’ shows up with a bandage on his head. It may be light-hearted, but it’s literature about literature, pitting the high art of storytelling against the rude concrete of empirical evidence. If only Woodard gave her literary sword that kind of double edge. Flight, however, is also quite beautiful: the actors’ ebullience, the sweet charm of Egan’s direction, the rising and falling cadences of dramatic tension, the music, Myung Hee Cho’s set of draped swamp foliage. This month’s copy of L.A. Stage contains an interview with Michael Ritchie, CTG’s new artistic director. Ritchie speaks in generalities — as he did to the Weekly over a year ago — with sleek evasiveness, laying out a multitude of possibilities for each administrative dilemma. “I don’t have the answers,” he said about identity politics in the theater. “I don’t even have the questions yet.” This does make one wonder what exactly he’s been doing for the past year. It also arouses a growing apprehension that we’ll be looking back at the Davidson era with fond memories of a theater that, despite lapses of artistry, at least knew what it believed in. FLIGHT | By CHARLAYNE WOODARD | Presented by CENTER THEATER GROUP at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATER, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through February 13 | (213) 628-2772, TDD (213) 680-4017, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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