'Flyin' West' follows characters in midst of 'black exodus'

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 | 4:25 p.m. CST; updated 4:46 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Afton Thomas plays the role of Fannie Dove in "Flyin' West" during a rehearsal on Feb. 18 at MU's Rhynsburger Theatre. Fannie Dove is the mild-tempered mediator between the bickering pair of Sophie Washington and Miss Leah.

COLUMBIA — “Zinggamama zinggamama zing zing zing, zinggamama zinggamama zing zing zing.” It is 6:30 on a recent Monday evening in MU's Rhynsburger Theatre, and the six-member cast of “Flyin’ West” is practicing vocal warm-ups to improve enunciation before its first full run-through.

“Flyin’ West,” set in 1898, is the story of four women who have escaped racial oppression of the South and found independence and intellectual freedom in the African-American town of Nicodemus, Kan. Simply moving west, however, does not mean that these women have left all their racial troubles behind.

If you go

What: "Flyin' West," presented by the MU theater department, directed by Clyde Ruffin

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 8 p.m. March 5 to 7; and  2 p.m. March 8.

Where: Rhynsburger Theatre, Hitt Street and University Avenue

Admission: General public $12; faculty/staff $10;
students/seniors $8 with valid ID. 

For more information: Call 882-7529 for tickets and information.

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Clyde Ruffin, the director, said he chose the play for its historic and social significance. “It is an important part of our history that is not often told,” Ruffin said.

“The author has combined the story of women that took advantage of the Homestead Act and that of African-Americans” to provide a unique perspective of the time, he said.

The play has been been widely produced across the country but never in Missouri, he said.

Chris Blackerby, an MU senior, as "Frank Charles" and CortneyJo Washington as "Miss Leah" both said they are excited to receive feedback from a real audience, or the “fourth element” as Washington calls it.

“We’ve been rehearsing since January — we’ve actually added on time to our rehearsal schedule just to make sure everything is perfect," said Blackerby, for whom this is a first major role in an MU production. "It gets a little hard to stay intense and to stay 100 percent when it is just the director watching.”

Washington, a 2006 graduate of the theater department and a current master’s student in personal finance planning at MU, said “Flyin’ West” contains a lot of deep information because of the time period. “The audience will definitely have to be attentive, open-minded and hopefully not easily offended,” she said.

The playwright, Pearl Cleage, has used history to provide context for the play. Between 1879 and 1881, nearly 60,000 African-Americans migrated westward, according to the Library of Congress. This event has come to be known as the “black exodus” and the participants as “exodusters.”

Following the Civil War, the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877 to end the era of Reconstruction. What followed were increasingly strict Jim Crow laws and sharecropping practices. The South soon became an even less appealing home for African-Americans.

Kansas, owing to its fierce struggle to remain an anti-slavery state, was a beacon of hope to African-Americans at the end of Reconstruction, Ruffin said.

With the encouragement and support of leaders such as Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, African-Americans in the South found themselves moving West to take advantage of the Homestead Act, according to Cleage's research. Some of these individuals found their way to Nicodemus, founded in 1877. The town still exists and was designated as a national historic site in 1996.

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