Stage Trails Black Women West

Article excerpt

Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Don't mess with the women of Nicodemus, Kan. And if you do, steer clear of their apple pie. These are just two of the many insights you come away with in the True Colors Theater Company's strong and sassy production, directed by Andrea Frye, of "Flyin' West," Pearl Cleage's hard-minded play about black pioneer women who left slavery and the South for a new, freer life in places like Nicodemus.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of "free" land - seized from the Indians - to U.S. citizens disposed to living in the vast, wild Western states.

Most of the settlers were traditional families, but by 1890, a quarter of a million single or widowed women were running their own farms and ranches. Many of these frontierswomen were blacks who migrated to Kansas starting in 1879.

Predominately black towns like Nicodemus were a short-lived dream for most settlers, as many Western states adopted Jim Crow laws by the early 1900s that were every bit as harsh as those enforced in the Deep South.

Miss Cleage, a novelist and FOO (Friend of Oprah), sets "Flyin' West" in the glory days, when the prairie was populated by shotgun-toting, tobacco-smoking, cowboy-booted women who were as ornery and land-proud as any cowpoke who flicked a spur. The most colorful cuss of them all is Sophie Washington (powerhouse Crystal Fox), a former laundress who will do anything to defend her farm, which she owns with her two sisters Fannie (Dawn Ursula) and Minnie (Kinnik). She remembers what life was like in Memphis and listened hard to the stories of slavery told by an elderly homesteader, Miss Leah (Pat Bowie), and doesn't ever want to go back.

As portrayed with consummate squinty-eyed flintiness by Miss Fox, Sophie is the kind of gal who shoots first and asks questions later. Two forces threaten her freedom - white land speculators itching to buy black-owned land, and something closer to home. Minnie and her new husband, Frank (J. Paul Nicholas), come for a visit and it is clear from the first arch of his elegant brow that he's bad news. Although on the surface the picture of urbane cultivation, Frank is a drinker, gambler and wife-beater, roiling with racial self-hatred that compels him to mock black people every chance he gets. Mr. Nicholas could have given the role a Snidely Whiplash opaqueness, but this gifted actor is fearless in his portrayal of an insufferable fop with pathological weaknesses. …