In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Dimensions of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West
  • Esther Beth Sullivan (bio)


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Figure 1.

Sophie Washington (Linda Gravtt) and Fannie Dove (Mon Walton) in the Intiman Theatre Company production of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West (1994).

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Figure 2.

Fannie Dove (Mon Walton) and Wil Parrish (Timothy McCuen Piggee) in the Intiman Theatre Company production of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West (1994). Photo: Chris Bennion.

During the summer of 1994, a research grant from Ohio State University took me to Seattle where I interviewed professional dramaturgs working on multicultural projects within their various theatres. I was interested in how dramaturgs were playing crucial roles in the development of community-based productions. Simultaneously, I was working with other scholars to document and analyze the activity of “staging community.” In between these related projects, Flyin’ West captured my attention. Dealing with an all-black Western town in the late 1800s, Cleage’s play “stages” an historical community for another community, her “sisters and brothers of good will.” As I began analyzing Cleage’s script, one of the major regional theatres in Seattle, Intiman, opened its production of Flyin’ West. In conversation with Intiman’s dramaturg, Robert Menna, we puzzled over the play’s reception. While audiences seemed to enjoy Flyin’ West, critics seemed dismissive of its appeal. My interests as a full-time academic, sometime dramaturg, and born-and-bred Westerner subsequently coalesced around Flyin’ West and its reception.

Flyin’ West opened at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1992 and has had subsequent productions at regional theatres from New Brunswick and Washington, DC, to Oakland and Seattle. 1 Pearl Cleage, the playwright, found her material for this play in the lives of freed slaves who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1860. As Cleage notes in her foreword:

[this act] offered 320 acres of ‘free’ land stolen from the dwindling populations of Native Americans, to U.S. citizens who were willing to settle in the western states . . . [and] large groups of African American homesteaders left the South following the Civil War to settle all-black towns.

(Flyin’ 6)

Even more specifically, Cleage links her drama to the writing of Ida B. Wells, who after an 1892 lynching and riot in Memphis, called for her readers to “pack up as many of their belongings as possible” and head west (Flyin’ 6). Cleage takes this actual occurrence and envisions it in a fictional account of three sisters [End Page 11] who have left Memphis and homesteaded in the “Negro town” of Nicodemus, Kansas.

Despite the interest that regional theatres have shown in Flyin’ West, the play has garnered mixed reviews from newspaper critics. This is certainly not unusual in the theatre. For the majority of new plays produced, mixed or even poor reviews are more the rule than the exception. In the good reviews of Flyin’ West, critics generally focus on the play’s interesting subject matter and “strong audience appeal” (Evans 1), noting the participation of spectators who “boo the villain all the way up to the curtain call” (Pressley C11). However, the mixed reviews accompanying Flyin’ West reveal critics who are not as captivated by the construction of either the play’s plot or characters. These critics always start by praising Cleage’s project of developing plays about African American women, but they finish by criticizing the melodramatic formal features that the playwright employs. Exemplifying this perspective, Chris Jones begins his 1994 review arguing that while Cleage’s topic “may be intriguing and worthy of exploration,” he finds the play to be no more than a “domestic potboiler with all the subtlety of a bad Boucicault melodrama” (170).

Reading Cleage’s play in light of this journalistic reception, one finds not just differences between critics, but contradictions between the playwright’s sense of the play and the reviewers’ judgments. While the playwright understands her work in relation to a particular kind of audience, the reviewers tend to project another. Consequently, a disjunction of expectations seems to occur. Cleage assumes that the complexity of her themes will carry over into her (melo)drama, but some reviewers can’t...

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