Flyin’ West Opens at Lehman

By Delbert Browne

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

It is 1898.

Stripped of a homeland and of a culture, many Southern slaves yearn for a place to call home, far from the plantations where they had been shackled.  Many look to the West as a place to start afresh, lured by the promise of land.

Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West tells the story of African American pioneers, women who remake their lives in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Freed of slavery, sisters Sophie, Fannie and Minnie still struggle against Jim Crow laws, physically abusive men and discrimination within their own community.

Flyin’ West debuts at Lehman College on February 29th. Directed by Susan Watson-Turner, this will be one of several plays done at Lehman that tackle the African American experience.

Dr. Watson-Turner began her career with the Negro Ensemble Company, a black theater that started during the Civil Rights Movement.

Turner explains that she chose to do this play because she wanted to celebrate blackness and womanhood.   She describes the play as “racism meets sexism” and says that the characters have many contemporary points-of-view, especially about living without the support of men.

Many of the actors describe feeling a connection with their characters. Fionia Amara, a Lehman alumnus who plays Minnie, says that her personal experience with domestic violence and witnessing other abuse victims helped her develop her character.

Actresses Zenzele Scott, an African American guest artist from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says she relates to the female characters because of their great strength and their sense of family values.

Rashida Lyles, a junior at Lehman College, agrees. From Alabama, Lyles also feels at home in her character’s Southern drawl.

Actors who are not African-American play two of the characters, Frank and Fannie. Mark Nicaj, 24, an Albanian-American and Brigida Valenzuela, a Dominican-American, both say they were initially nervous to take on their roles, but now feel confident that they will do them justice.

Each brings their own experiences of discrimination to their characters. “There are struggles in every culture,” Nicaj says, recalling his own, growing up a white homosexual male in a black neighborhood. He says that he wants to “take the feeling and portray it.”

Valenzuela draws on the parallels between her life and that of her character. “In the Dominican Republic, the lighter (people) are always in favor,” she says, much like in the story of Flyin’ West.  She adds that she also had to research African-American culture in order to really develop her character.

Both the cast and the director feel that the play’s message is universal and will transcend color, ethnic, and language barriers. Flyin’ West starts with its first matinee performance on Wednesday, February 29th at 3:30 pm and concludes with its last matinee performance on Sunday, March 4th at 3:30pm.

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