Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West is the story of a small group of African-American women whose lives changed when the West was opened up for people willing to settle in a harsh and untested region. The backgrounds, actions, and feelings of the play’s four women and two men reflect themes of determination, racism, miscegenation (intermarriage between races), feminism, pride, and freedom. These themes are evident in much of Cleage’s work, which includes plays, novels, and essays.
Flyin’ West was published in 1995 by Dramatists Play Service but was performed in Atlanta prior to publication. The play was originally commissioned in 1992 by the Alliance Theatre Company and was produced with the support of AT&T and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Resident Theatre Initiative. Critical response was favorable, and audiences were pleasantly surprised at the play’s bold content. Besides portraying strong black women in late nineteenth-century America, the play serves as a reminder that the West was settled by a diverse population. Cleage seeks to inform audiences that the Homestead Act enabled people from all races and genders to own land and to use that land to support themselves, or to develop it and sell it for a profit. The women in the play have left the oppressive South in hopes of enjoying the freedom that they have so long been denied. Flyin’ West remains one of Cleage’s most admired works.
As Flyin’ West opens, Sophie and Miss Leah are at home drinking coffee and talking about land acquisition for African Americans. They are homesteaders who came to Kansas (their farm is outside the all-black town of Nicodemus) to accept free land for cultivation. Miss Leah is a feisty elderly woman who demands respect, and Sophie is a good-natured but strong-willed woman who takes care of Miss Leah without making her feel dependent. The two women discuss the emergence of all-black communities; they resent threats to such communities by white speculators who want to buy their land. Sophie expresses her determination to get a school for the town by the spring. Outside, Fannie and Wil talk about acquaintances they have in common, as well as Wil’s travels in Mexico and Fannie’s love of wildflowers.
Fannie’s younger sister Minnie arrives by train with her husband, Frank. Frank is fifteen years Minnie’s senior, and he is clearly in control of the relationship. The couple lives in London and enjoys a wealthy lifestyle. Frank is of mixed heritage and has little in common with his wife’s black family. He acts superior, an attitude that carries over into his marriage; he is physically abusive toward Minnie, although she lies to hide it from her family.
Minnie and Frank talk about their life in London, where they rarely see other black people. This saddens Minnie but suits Frank. He is condescending toward black people in general and is clearly trying to suppress that aspect of his heritage. That night, Fannie, Minnie, and Sophie gather outside to hold hands and perform a ritual that they first performed when they left Memphis to be free in the West. The ritual consists of Sophie leading the other two in declaring their intentions to be free and to honor themselves and the women who came before them.
The next morning, Minnie and Miss Leah talk about children. Miss Leah reveals that she had her first child at the age of thirteen, and over the years, she lost all ten to the slave trade. When she and her husband, James, were finally free, they lost five more children to illness. Miss Leah tells how this destroyed James, who desperately wanted to see a son grow into a man. Minnie tells Miss Leah that she misses being around other black people, and Miss Leah braids Minnie’s hair the way she did long ago. Frank reproaches Minnie for making herself look that way.
That night, Frank is gone and Sophie is showing Minnie her plans for the town of Nicodemus. She has drawn a map of the town, complete with a school, library, and everything a self-supporting town needs. While Sophie is out checking the horses, Frank returns drunk and finds Minnie in the guest room in which they are staying. He tells Minnie that he was out gambling with white men and lost all his money, and he...
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