By Jason Zinoman Feb. 17, 2010
“Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” Layon Gray’s sturdy drama about trailblazing African-American fighter pilots entering the European theater in World War II, gets by on the charm of the cast and a commitment to the rules of the uplifting inspirational melodrama.
The leisurely 2-hour-20-minute play is full of good intentions, decent talent and not an ounce of daring. Mr. Gray, who stages his own work, steers his underdog story so cautiously, moving in the straightest of lines, that you don’t always realize how deftly he’s setting you up. Bracketing this agreeable drama is that old device, the folksy narrator (Antonio D. Charity), who provides historical context and dictionary definitions of racism and segregation. “You see, I believe in the principle that all men are created equal,” he says at the start.
The scene shifts to a cold waiting room where six likable and earnest young strivers are waiting to take a test to see if they qualify to serve. They joke with one another, make light of regional differences and bicker, establishing an easygoing chemistry.
The one loner, Jerimah Jones (a stern-faced Derek Shaun), makes such a show of his disdain for the others that you know he will soften up after a personal secret is revealed. When the sensitive Quentin (played by Mr. Gray himself, in an ingratiating turn) goes on about his Lucille back home, he telegraphs another plot twist. Quentin’s brother, Abraham, played with tenderness by Thom Scott II, looks out for him, and their relationship is the play’s emotional core.
"Quentin’s brother, Abraham, played with tenderness by Thom Scott II, looks out for him, and their relationship is the play’s emotional core."
Every sympathetic character hits one note over and over, but Mr. Gray has the instincts of an entertainer, and the rapport his actors have established is persuasive enough to distract you from the formulaic aspects of the drama. As manipulative, obvious and sentimental as it is, this show is also tough to resist. By the end, when the pilots overcame their obstacles and finally got up into the air to the swelling of music, tears welled up in my eyes right after I rolled them.
Black Angels Over Tuskegee
St. Luke's Theater
308 W. 46th St. Midtown West
Category: Off Broadway, Drama, Play Runtime: 2 hrs. and 35 min. Credits: Written and directed by Layon Gray Cast: Layon Gray, Thaddeus Daniels, Melvin Huffnagle, David Roberts, Craig Colasanti, Delano Barbosa, Jeantique Oriol and Lamar Cheston
Preview: Jan. 29, 2010
Opened: Feb. 15, 2010
Closed: Open Run
This information was last updated on Aug. 27, 2018
“Black Angels Over Tuskegee” is playing at St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street, Clinton; (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com.
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 18, 2010, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: An Elite Squadron, Before It Was Airborne. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe