What is it about Americans and our relentless, not to say ruthless, pursuit of happy endings? We seem to enjoy, or at least patronize, only entertainment in which good is triumphant, evil is punished and, if there's time left over, lovers united.
And I despise it. If people want a final episode of tearful victory on a "reality" show to excuse the 22 weeks they've spent lapping up public humiliation, that's their business. But to suggest that some singular upbeat outcome trumps a grim historical reality makes me nuts. Steven Spielberg did it with Schindler's List and Amistad, and Charlayne Woodard does it with her play Flight, now at City Theatre.
We're on a plantation in Georgia in 1858. A boy, Li'l Jim, has just seen his mother sold off to another planter. When the play opens, the boy has climbed a tree, and four slaves attempt to talk him down by narrating and acting out stories about the lives of his ancestors.
The most important thing to say, as your consumer reporter, is that Flight is less a play than a bit of educational theater -- the kind of thing that tours schools, in this case I would say grades 6-8. There's lots to learn about the day-to-day existence of a slave, life in African villages, and the tradition of the "griot," or storyteller. The stories told in Flight are tales of long standing, and Woodard and director Liesl Tommy flesh them out nicely onstage with the very hard-working cast of Kevin Brown, Taifa Harris, George Jones, Joshua Elijah Reese, Avery Sommers and DeWanda Wise.
But Woodard's framing device (the boy-up-a-tree thing) doesn't really work. The characters are "types," and interaction between them feels forced and foolish. Especially dismaying is that the villain turns out to be a woman embittered because she's barren and unmarried. Does she truly believe that's her biggest problem?
It's the play's last part, however, that really doesn't work. Woodard struggles to find a happy ending for a story that simple cannot end happily. The resolution she supplies, a tale about slaves who learn to fly, is quite moving -- until you stop to think, and you realize ... Hey, wait a minute! Slaves couldn't fly. Even Li'l Jim knows that; why else would he have climbed that tree?
Flight continues through April 6. City Theatre, 13th and Bingham streets, South Side. 412-431-CITY or www.citytheatrecompany.org
- Courtesy of John Schisler
- Higher purpose: Joshua Elijah Reese and DeWanda Wise take to the air in City Theatre's Flight.