Playwright Layon Gray captures a moment in the history of the United States Armed Forces with the compelling drama Black Angels Over Tuskegee. It is the story of Black men who dared to dream of joining the United States Air Force in the 1940s and became the first Black men to be trained at Tuskegee Institute/Moton Field air base in Alabama.
Gray, who also directs and stars in the play, informs the audience that these men were college educated, professional men who were proud and determined to succeed. In training, the men cope with everything from overt racism to subtle disrespect. Expected to fail, they not only survive training but also go on to fight in World War II.
The play focuses on the lives of Abraham Dorsey, his brother Quentin Dorsey, Theodore Franks, Jerimah Jones (played by Derek Shaun), Percival Nash and Elijah Sams, who meet at a military base in Utah while waiting to take a written test to see if they can go on to Tuskegee. The men are left in a room for hours, as white officers in an adjoining room seem to ignore them. Instead of allowing this to discourage them, they use the time to get to know one another and talk of their dreams of passing the test and going to Tuskegee.
Each man has a unique story to tell and each slowly reveals bits of his personal life. When the men pass the test and arrive at Tuskegee, the racial prejudice, frustration and discouragement they encounter are much worse than what they experienced in Utah. This time, however, the men have formed strong bonds and serve as one another’s support system. The touching stories they share move the audience to tears. In addition to segregationist laws and the Air Force, they must also struggle with the pain of separation from loved ones at home.
Gray inspires the audience to feel a great sense of pride in the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen. Black Angels Over Tuskegee portrays these trailblazing pilots so vividly and with such passion that it has already received the 2009 NAACP Award for Best Ensemble and the 2009 Artistic Director Achievement Award for Best Play. It was selected to perform at the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival, held in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Gray’s production is no surprise to those who know the playwright. Gray is a founding member of the Black Gents of Hollywood, an ensemble of socially responsible Black actors and directors formed in 2007 for the purpose of portraying Black males in relevant and educational roles. Black Angels cast members Thom Scott II, Demetrius Grosse, David Wendell Boykins and Lammon Rucker are also members of the Black Gents of Hollywood. Tobias Truvillion (of the television soap opera One Life to Live) joined the cast in June, and Lawrence Saint-Victor (of Guiding Light) began to rotate with Rucker the same month. Other understudies are Steve Brustein, Thaddeus Daniels and Melvin Huffnagle.
Black Angels Over Tuskegee is produced by The Black Gents, Edmund Gaynes and The Layon Gray Experience. The production is playing an open-ended run at the Actors Temple Theater, located at 339 W. 47th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues.