Part of the mythos of the American West holds out the promise of freedom and second chances, things that the heroines of Pearl Cleage's play Flyin' West hunger for. Commissioned by the Alliance Theatre in the early 1990s and revived by True Colors Theatre Co., the engrossing drama depicts the all-black settlement of Nicodemus, Kan., from the point of view of African-American women making their stakes unfettered by either whites or men.
Rifle-toting landowner Sophie (petite yet intimidating Crystal Fox) craves wide open spaces as much as any cowboy and shares a farmhouse with her sister Fannie (Dawn Ursula) and elderly former slave Miss Leah (Pat Bowie). In the play's first act, Sophie tries to rally the citizens of Nicodemus against selling their land to white speculators. In the play's first act, Sophie's community-building ambitions anticipate the wilderness politicking of HBO's "Deadwood," with an added call for racial solidarity.
But with the arrival of Sophie and Fannie's sister Minnie (Kinnick) and her cruel husband Frank (Paul Nicholas), the play becomes increasingly simplistic. At first, Frank embodies the thorniest aspects of race in the 19th century: A mulatto born of a wealthy New Orleans family, Frank has a hatred of his wife and other "negroes" that stems from misdirected self-loathing. Cleage's plot, however, turns the role into little more than Snidely Whiplash. Flyin' West's second act becomes a crowd-pleasing melodrama of sisterhood, empowerment and revenge that could take place at seemingly any time or place and squanders the play's unique historical setting.
Director Andrea Frye and the top-notch cast bring out the richness of the play's emotions, from the women's cheerful joshing interplay to genre-style suspense to heart-breaking speeches about past injustices. Flyin' West builds to a reasonably rousing portrayal of Good vs. Evil, but genuinely great plays, like the best of August Wilson and George Bernard Shaw, find drama in the struggle of Good against Good.
True Colors Theatre Co. presents Flyin' West through July 31. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. $28-$43. 404-733-4750. www.truecolorstheatrecompany.com.
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