University of Pittsburgh looks at a lost era of Black history with Flyin’ West | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

University of Pittsburgh looks at a lost era of Black history with Flyin’ West

Based on a true story, the play follows African-American women settlers in 1898

click to enlarge University of Pittsburgh looks at a lost era of Black history with Flyin’ West
Illustration from the Flyin’ West poster

The founding of America comes packaged in a white, male-dominated history full of pioneering figures like Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody. In reality, however, this country’s past is far more complex and diverse, as shown in Flyin’ West, a 1994 play written by African-American author and playwright Pearl Cleage, about African-American women settlers in an all-Black town. 

The University of Pittsburgh presents a new production of the work, opening Feb. 14 at the Henry Heymann Theatre. Director Karen Gilmer says she first read Flyin’ West about 15 years ago, while she was in graduate school at Boston University.  

“I was drawn to the richness of the setting and the story,” says Gilmer, who also serves as a costume design lecturer in Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts. “Cleage's storytelling and language drew me in. Her characters are vibrant and their language is alive with life force and passion.”

Set in 1898, the story follows four women who relocate to Nicodemus, Kan., a town settled by African Americans, many of them former slaves, after the Civil War. The main characters endure harsh winters, the threat of domestic violence, and racial conflict as they attempt to carve out lives for themselves in new territory. 

“The fact that I had never heard or learned that African Americans had migrated west was intriguing,” says Gilmer. “All cowboys and folks who settled out west are always portrayed as white. This was the first dramatic work I had ever read where the settlers and pioneers were of color. The idea that the West was settled by a diverse population fascinated and excited me.”

That the play is based in fact makes it all the more compelling. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered settlers a new start in freed up western land taken from Native Americans. As a result, many African Americans migrated west to escape Jim Crow and the violence inflicted on Black people in the South during Reconstruction.

Cut to Nicodemus, an actual town founded in the 1870s by W.R. Hill and W.H. Smith, along with five African-American ministers. 

Gilmer says she wanted to do the play to continue to shed light on an obscure part of African-American history.

“It takes a look at the generation born after slavery and how they are able to experience a better life than the ones who paved the way for them before,” says Gilmer. “It is much like the Civil Rights movement and the effect the movement has on this generation today. It also addresses why the history is so important and passing down stories that show triumph, determination, and pride are important to preserving and maintaining Black culture.”

She also believes Flyin’ West depicts the pursuit of the American Dream long before the idea of the American Dream even existed. “Moving to the unknown to survive and thrive was better than being in the South,” says Gilmer. “That is what it costs to be a part of the American Dream.”

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