Review: “Flyin’ West” soars to a standing ovation
Photo Courtesy of Sami Saunders Studios
Sophie Washington (Alexis Primus, top left), Miss Leah (Roxie Robinson, top middle) Fannie Dove (Sydney Dubose) watch on as Minnie Dove Charles (Maya Boyd) discovers her husband, Frank Charles (Brenden Peifer), dead after being poisoned.
By Tamara Alchoufete, For The Pitt News
Most of us would go to great lengths to save those we love from harm, especially family members. Dedication, loyalty and a familial bond could create a will strong enough to kill. The play “Flyin’ West” takes on this concept in the Civil War times in Kansas.
The Pitt theatre arts department told this story beautifully on Wednesday night, showing that “Flyin’ West” really is a journey of flying “as free as a bird” from the oppressive South to the open prairies of the West. The story follows three African-American sisters in Nicodemus, Kansas, who have hundreds of acres of land made available to them through the Homestead Act of 1860. At this point in history, owning land in America meant freedom, and these women had to fight hard to keep their freedom. It is a story of struggle, retribution and sisterhood.
The Henry Heymann Theatre on campus was packed, and the audience was electrified by the performance brought on by just a cast of six actors. Not only is the plot of “Flyin’ West” historically significant, but the cast is as well — it’s the first all-black cast in Pitt’s history.
The play is centered on the fearless, land-owning Sophie Washington (Alexis Primus), who is often seen on stage with a shotgun. Sophie would do anything to protect her family, and that quality of the character was projected from the stage seamlessly. Her shotgun is used most notably to threaten her sister Minnie’s (Maya Boyd) abusive husband, Frank (Brenden Peifer). Each time Sophie grasped her shotgun, she created tension and suspense. This gesture showed that the familial bonds between the sisters were strong enough to lead to murder.
Primus stated in a previous Pitt News article about the production that it was tough to set her gentle personality aside and attack the ambitious character of Sophie. This differentiation between character and self was especially important in terms of the loathing shared between Sophie and Frank, played by real-life best friends Primus and Peifer. Sophie quite obviously detests Frank with every fiber of her being.
When Minnie was taking the punches from Frank, the whole audience could be caught flinching from the back row. As Sophie took up her shotgun and pointed it at the man hurting her baby sister, the tension and drama took hold of the audience. It is this kind of true and raw emotion that should make whomever is watching uncomfortable, but also aware that “Flyin’ West” is a story that must be heard.
The role of Miss Leah (Roxie Robinson) — a grandmother figure in the lives of the three sisters — absolutely captivated the audience, as she was the glue that held the character relationships together. One standout detail of Robinson’s character Miss Leah was that she never let anyone make her feel like she couldn’t take care of herself anymore, and Robinson brought this to the stage with a bit of comic relief.
In one scene when Leah asked Sophie where her shawl was, Miss Leah interrupted Sophie before she could answer. Robinson yelled a quick and sassy, “Well, don’t tell me,” creating a rhetorical question that rings true to something a real-life grandmother might do. This roused laughter from the audience, and showed the serious show’s depth to also have pleasantly funny moments.
The third sister, Fannie Dove (Sydney Dubose), brought another element of sweetness to the show. Dubose’s deep-dimpled smile radiated through the stationary set depicting the house. Her character’s dynamic was phenomenal as the viewers could see her angelic demeanor turn dark when she tries to save her younger sister from the awful life she was living with Frank. No one will ever be able to forget the beautiful flowers Fannie plants around the house or how she lights up the room by just sweeping through the door.
The set was a marvel in itself and though it was stationary, historical accents and objects complimented the plot perfectly. The actors would pour water, eat a turkey dinner and drink coffee and wine, all while still emanating their respective characters.
Gravel lining the house and put in piles in various locations created an environment in the theater that spoke of the countryside, smelling of old leather. The soothing music that played in the background at times was never out of place, giving people a breather from the profound themes and intense drama present. Those aspects of the production gave another layer of relatability to this historical piece.
With this production of “Flyin’ West” it is not hard to leave the theater floored by the exceptional performance. Historical, beautiful and intense are just a few of the many characteristics this show holds.