An important part of United States history, frequently neglected in recounting “the big picture,” is the part played by the Tuskegee Airmen in the ultimately successful conclusion of World War II.
A small segment of this part is the subject of “Black Eagles,” a play by Leslie Lee directed by Deb Swerman, which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre.
Using the flashback format as the framework for the story (based on fact) of dedicated airmen who studied and trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee University Air Field, the action begins in Washington, D.C. at a 1989 reunion of pilots from the 99th Fighter Squadron.
After a little backslapping and a few ”can you top this” reminiscences by older veterans Clark (Rev. Terrell A/ Jackson), Nolan (Charles Payne) and Leon (David Smith), it shifts to 1944 Italy where their counterparts, the same-but-young — and understandably frustrated — pilots are stationed and chomping at the bit to see some real killing action.
Their assignments as pursuit pilots, escorting white bomber crews to their targets with orders to stay with them no matter what, leave the young airmen ready to undertake any challenge in order to see a bit of actual action.
Exacerbating this is the fact that the Army Air Corps, as indeed all the military forces, was segregated. What was true at home was true in the service and, in spite of several declarations made by the pilots, nothing would change in their immediate future.
As they wait for news of their next assignment, the six pilots — Clarke (SSG. SSteven Wilbur), Roscoe (Ben Little), Nolan (Eric Ways), Buddy (Anderson Chimutu), Leon (Kenneth Taylor) and Othel (DeLorean Gammage) — share hopes, dreams and realities. Since this is a diverse group, the friction level also rises, even about such obviously unrealistic topics as which one is Lena Horne’s boyfriend.
When the opportunity to become fighter pilots and each gets a “kill,” their enthusiasm is understandable. The brief look at the relationship between Buddy and Pia (Mahaffa Tompson), an Italian girl, seems extraneous.
The script does not offer many looks at why each man became a pilot or where he hopes to go when the war is over or what his family is like. What little backstory there is is supplied by the actors themselves, some SBCT veterans and some newcomers.
All acquit themselves well with special applause to Little who not only plays Roscoe but Julius, the pilot’s ventriloquism dummy and the focus of much of the play’s humor.
The awkward atmosphere that arises when two white pilots, Dave (Cam Matteson) and Roy (Miller), drop in to meet the men they have heard so much about, eventually vanishes incrementally with each gulp as they share a bottle of cognac.
It is a difficult scene to make real, especially in the close quarters of the black box theater, and it is to the credit of the company that it feels very natural.
The entrance of General Lucas (Curt Goodrich) with a paper listing the rules of segregation definitely is a major disruption. In spite of his command, the black pilots refuse to sign. The white pilots silently slip away.
Nothing had changed and would not begin to for several years until President Truman signed an executive order aimed at ending military segregation.
But, as the Tuskegee airmen must have known, that was only the beginning. It may have become better in the military but the struggle for equality was barely begun in 1944 and continues today.
The necessity of learning and relearning this lesson is underscored by the trials of these Black Eagles.
BLACK EAGLES plays through Aug. 20 in the studio theater at 215W. Madison St. , South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.