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Nashville Scene Sister Settlers

Black culture "flies" west

By Lisa A. DuBois

AUGUST 3, 1998:  When American pioneers began pushing west, weathering angry winters and scorching summers for the chance to carve out a new life on the prairie, they weren't just chasing a dream. Many were also escaping a nightmare.

From 1860 until the turn of the century, ambitious homesteaders accepted the government's offer of 320 free acres of land to anyone willing to forge a trail across the plains and stake a claim. In a mass exodus orchestrated by black minister Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, 20,000 to 40,000 former slaves headed to the open spaces of Kansas, forming a number of all-black settlementsthe most famous of which was the farming community of Nicodemus. Although some stayed on, most of these African American settlers, like their Caucasian peers, failed in their attempt to tame the wilderness.

In 1892, a second smaller influx of black Americans, angered by implacable Jim Crow laws, struck out for the West. That year, three well-to-do black businessmen were lynched in Memphis, setting off race riots. Firebrand journalist Ida B. Wells wrote a column calling for all of Memphis' Negro citizens to leave the city, inspiring 7,000 people to pack up their belongings and push into the frontier. There, their enemies switched from racist mobs to blizzards, droughts, and locusts. But for black women such as those in Pearl Cleage's play Flyin' West, these devastating forces of nature still offered the better option.

"I want this town to be a place where a colored woman can be free to live her life like a human being," states Nicodemus homesteader Sophie Washington, a former slave. "I want this town to be a place where a colored man can work as hard for himself as for white folks. I want a town where a colored child can go to anybody's door and be treated like they belong there."

On Aug. 5, 6, and 7, actors from Tennessee State University's Summer Stock Theatre Program will present Flyin' West at TPAC's Johnson Theater. Barry Scott, who has run TSU's summer program for four years, is directing.

"These characters defy the images we typically see in theater or in the media," Scott says. "We don't have black women in the media taking a stand for their community. When I read the script, I cried throughout, because I recognized my mother and my grandmother.

"My mission is to make people aware of the heritage of black America."

A central part of that heritage, and a central theme in Cleage's drama, is sisterhood. Four devoted black womenSophie, Fannie, Minnie, and the septuagenarian Miss Leahare united by their commitment to Nicodemus, all having toiled long and hard to convert grassland into rich farmland. They are now the victims of their own success, as they grapple with pressures to sell off their claims to white prospectors ready to integrate the town. Sophie, in particular, views white encroachment as ready-made doom for black frontierswomen.

If Sophie is the fighter, her "sister" Fannie is the dreamer. A middle-aged spinster, Fannie insists on imposing such niceties as fresh-cut flowers and china plates into their rugged home. She is also newly enticed by the gentle advances of Wil Parrish, a neighboring homesteader.

No longer able to work her claim, the 73-year-old Miss Leah represents the archetypal battle-scarred black matron, still feisty in spirit, but physically beaten down from years of bucking the system. Miss Leah saw 10 of her children sold away from her by her master, and she lost five others to a fever epidemic in Memphis. "We can't let nobody take our babies," she tells the pregnant Minnie. "We've given up all the babies we can afford to lose."

Minnie has just turned 21 and therefore is heir to her portion of the family property, prompting her and her mulatto husband Frank to travel to Kansas from their home in London. An educated poet and so light-skinned he "passes for white," Frank doesn't share in his in-laws' passion for their land or their attachment to it. He sees instead the chance to score some big money by selling off Minnie's acreage to the highest bidder. Channeling through Frank's character, playwright Cleage launches some wicked barbs at certain types of African American men.

Scott says he views Frank and Wil as "alter-egos of the black malecovering the spectrum from one end to the next." Where Wil is self-effacing and appreciative, Frank is greedy and misogynistic, ashamed of his dark-skinned bloodline. At one point, Frank believes his gambling buddies think Minnie is "too black," so he refuses to acknowledge her as his wife. Wil, on the other hand, has no insecurities about his race or gender. "A colored woman is a precious jewel deserving of my respect, my love, and my protection," he tells Fannie. "My mother taught it to me."

Flyin' West affirms the notion that black women are worthy of praise and honor. One step removed from slavery, these matriarchs fought for tiny patches of land so that their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren would always have something of value to call their own. By any measure, that's one hell of a legacy.

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