Celebrating—and Challenging—the Western
by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Director
In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed, allowing for citizens over 21 years of age to claim up to 160 acres of land. This program, of course, came at a cost to Indigenous tribes throughout the Midwest and Western regions of the United States. So first, I wish to acknowledge that these theatre seats rest on the ancestral lands of the Miami, Piankashaw, Wea, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Delaware, and Shawnee.
More than a century after the Homestead Act, in 1993, playwright Pearl Cleage wrote Flyin’ West—a tale of the Old West seen through the visionary eyes of Sophie Washington, an African American settler in Nicodemus, Kansas, around the turn of the last century. The characters of Sophie and her two sisters, their elderly “auntie,” their self-loathing brother-in-law, and their loyal neighbor are fictitious. But Cleage’s story elements—struggling to make a home, the desire to protect family and legacy, the need to find love—resonate both with our shared American history and with our contemporary American life.
This iconic depiction of American life is told in the most American of genres: the Western. I grew up watching my father watch Westerns. Honestly, just this past Thanksgiving, there I was, popping into “Dad’s space” to hear the voice of Eric Fleming in Rawhide or, an hour later, the opening credits of Bonanza. Flyin’ West is melodramatic, funny, and the most American play I have ever directed. It transports us to a world that is American history. While the play is subtle in its conversation with history, it is an organic portrayal of the American belief in change and the American drive to stand up for what we believe in.
This fictional Western takes place in a very real place: the town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Settled by freed slaves in 1877, it was one of many Black communities established west of the Mississippi River after the Civil War. An almost mythical town to us these days, Nicodemus conjures images of endless plains, tumbleweeds, and a vast night sky with haunting echoes of a howling coyote or a distant train. Nicodemus is a great lens into the beautiful ugliness that is the genesis of any community. Flyin’ West shows us violence, gun use, and women making decisions without permission.
The women in Westerns are usually inspired by the Calamity Janes and Annie Oakleys of known history. But what of the brazen lives of other true characters of character who redefined the Old West? Western pioneers such as Mary Ellen Pleasant or Abby Fisher are historically fascinating, as are our beloved Stagecoach Mary or Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
Flyin’ West challenges the Western genre with this building of a Black town, challenges our societal assumptions about women, and challenges our vision of leadership in the middle of America.
Flyin' West is onstage at the IRT now through February 4, 2023. Tickets available at irtlive.com.
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