The Power, Security, Risks, and Opportunities Represented by the Indoors and Outdoors in Flyin' West

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1706

Most of the action of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West takes place in and around the home of Fannie, Sophie, and Miss Leah. Their home is a frontier cabin, and although it is rustic and humble, it is priceless in its worth to them. Throughout the play, Cleage portrays the indoors and the outdoors as distinct realities. For the female characters, the indoors represents domestic comfort, immediate security, the familiar, and female power and wisdom. On the other hand, the outdoors represents opportunity, risk, challenges, and future security. As women in 1898, the characters are accustomed to the traditional view of women as keepers of the hearth; their tasks are cooking, cleaning, rearing children, caring for family members, and providing an inviting home atmosphere. The outdoors is where men traditionally work, especially in the context of the women’s African-American heritage; slavery has only recently been abolished, and most African- Americans endured its hardships. Farming, ranching, caring for livestock, cutting wood, and hunting and trapping are all activities that take place outside and are associated with men.

For Fannie, Sophie, and Miss Leah, however, there are no men, so it is they who must see that all tasks are performed, indoors and outdoors. Although the outdoor tasks are difficult and physically demanding, the women are glad to take them on because the outdoors represents something new to them: freedom and opportunity. They are responsible for the land because it is theirs, and although traveling west to cultivate land was risky, they did it because they saw it as an opportunity too precious to refuse. The land offers them freedom in the present and in the future because, as owners, they become the decision-makers.

Each character’s entrance reveals something about the character and the significance to her of the indoors and the outdoors. First, the audience meets Sophie. She enters the cabin from the outside, rushed, tired, and relieved to sit down for a moment. Sophie is tired from running errands in town and returns home for respite. Her freedom both enables and requires her to carry out duties among the townsfolk, but it is inside the cabin that she feels restored. Once she gets comfortable in a chair, however, she turns to a window and opens it. Relaxing indoors, she gazes appreciatively outdoors. Her sentiment toward the wide open spaces of the West is evident in her recollection of the day she, Minnie, and Fannie left to go west. She says:

The day our group left Memphis, there were at least two hundred other Negroes standing around, rolling their eyes and trying to tell us we didn’t know what it was going to be like out here in the wilderness. I kept trying to tell them it doesn’t matter what it’s like. Any place is better than here!

Sophie’s entrance tells the reader that Sophie is equally comfortable indoors and outdoors, and she appreciates her responsibilities in both contexts. Next, Miss Leah appears from within the house.

With the exception of going to church, Miss Leah is always seen indoors. When she enters the audience’s view, she sees the open window and is annoyed. As the oldest character, Miss Leah lived the longest as a slave. She worked in the fields, so the outdoors represents hard labor with no reward. The audience should hardly be surprised that she strongly prefers the indoors.

Next, Fannie and Wil make their entrance together. They are first seen outdoors, strolling and chatting. Wil is in work clothes and Fannie is gathering flowers. These characters recognize opportunities in the outdoors. To Wil, the outdoors is where he now works for himself and has the chance to take charge of his destiny. Talking about whether there is room for both flowers and vegetables to grow, Wil tells Fannie, ‘‘There’s room for everything to grow out here. If there ain’t nothing else out here, there’s plenty of room.’’ Wil recognizes that just as there is room for all kinds of plants to grow outdoors, there is also room and opportunity for him to grow. For Fannie, the outdoors is a source of beauty and simple luxuries such as flowers. Fannie brings the flowers indoors, which demonstrates her comfort in either setting.

Although Fannie is of the same generation as Sophie (Fannie is only four years her junior), she was not born into slavery, so her perceptions of the indoors and outdoors differ from those of Sophie and Miss Leah. While both Fannie and Sophie appreciate the outdoors, the opportunity they perceive outdoors is quite different. Sophie sees opportunity to work her own land and build a future with her own hands, and she is satisfied to sit inside, relax, and appreciate the outdoors. On the other hand, Fannie recognizes the beauty of the outdoors, and she prefers to bring its elements indoors, as when she puts flowers in water and sets them all over the cabin. Because Fannie appreciates the tangible in the outdoors, she can bring it inside and enjoy it, but Sophie appreciates an intangible aspect of the outdoors—the opportunity to work for herself.

The entrance of Minnie and Frank takes place at a train station. This is significant to the discussion of the indoors and outdoors because their placement in either is less clear. A train station is neither a household nor outdoors. The train on which they have arrived possesses beds, a dining car, seating, and places to relax—an ‘‘indoors’’ that crosses the vast outdoors without acknowledging it. Their lifestyle is quite different from the frontier lifestyle of the other four characters, and they maintain the comforts of a comfortable domestic setting even in the middle of the wilderness. Their divergent perceptions of domestic comfort become clear when they arrive at the cabin. Minnie is right at home, but Frank is miserable. The indoors represents the female realm and the source of female power and wisdom, so this reaction is perfectly consistent with his character. Minnie values family, simple com- forts, and fellowship, but Frank is demeaning and cruel toward everything Minnie values. In the cabin, he is out of his element, both physically and emotionally.

Besides their entrances, the orientations of the characters continue to reveal what kind of women they are. Miss Leah is most comfortable indoors, and she is the character most closely bonded to everything the indoors represents. Sophie and Fannie pass from the indoors to the outdoors and back again with ease throughout the play, but the ways in which they interact with the outdoors differ. Sophie goes outside for practical purposes; she has duties such as bringing in wood for the fire, checking on the horses, and bringing in laundry. Fannie goes outside for pleasure. She loves flowers and walking outdoors because she appreciates nature not for its tangible offerings but for its spiritual ones. When Minnie arrives at the cabin, she spends most of her time inside. The cabin is her real home, and she misses it terribly. The outdoors and what it represents—risk and independence—frighten her.

The manner of Frank’s death at the end of the play is fitting given the indoor/outdoor significance. His plan to betray the women becomes clear, and it is so offensive to them that they can not allow him to go through with it. Further, their anger is fueled by his abusive treatment of Minnie. Sophie remarks, ‘‘All the dreams we have for Nicodemus, all the churches and schools and libraries we can build don’t mean a thing if a colored woman isn’t safe in her own house.’’ The women lure Frank back to their circle of power when he is on his way to his realm of control. He is going to town to make a business deal, but the women trick him into coming back to the cabin. Once there, he does not realize that he is under their control. Appropriately, Miss Leah uses an apple pie to kill him. An apple pie symbolizes domestic tasks, female duties, and the comforts of home. The women use this decidedly feminine object as a deadly weapon to kill the man who threatens everything they have worked to secure for themselves. Sophie initially wants to kill Frank outside with her shotgun, but Miss Leah’s plan is much more fitting. In his final moments, Frank is forced to realize that for all his abuse (physical, verbal, and emotional) of women, his fate is to become their victim.

The final scene of the play serves to emphasize the importance of both the indoors and the outdoors to the group of frontier women. It is seven months after Frank’s murder, and Miss Leah is watching Minnie’s baby as the others prepare to go to a dance. As the scene closes, the group has left for the dance, which demonstrates the burgeoning community growing strong beyond the domestic confines of the cabin. This community represents the future, a future that will nurture the family as it continues to grow. Inside the cabin, Miss Leah begins to tell the infant girl about the past and all the women who have worked to make the world better for her. Earlier in the play, Miss Leah and Minnie discuss the importance of children and the pain of having them taken away. Miss Leah says to Minnie:

They broke the chain, Baby Sister. But we have to build it back. And build it back strong so the next time nobody can break it. Not from the outside and not from the inside. We can’t let nobody take our babies. We’ve given up all the babies we can afford to lose.

The cabin represents the culmination of the past in the present as the elderly Miss Leah instructs and supports the tiny infant. Beyond the cabin, a community gathers to dance, and in doing so suggests the future. The group of women have learned to trust and embrace the indoors and the outdoors and everything that both represent—to realize a life that the generation before them could only imagine.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Flyin’ West, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Power of Race

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2305

Pearl Cleage, in her work Flyin’ West, examines the concept of freedom through careful character exploration along colorful lines. Cleage contrasts the character of Sophie to that of Roland, in her consideration of the attempts these characters make to realize freedom. Both take different approaches, based on their own sense of cultural identity. Specifically, Sophie sides with the African side of her biracial past while Frank chooses to identify with the white aspect of his. While there is a clear moral victory at the play’s end, it is never clear that either of the characters have formulated an appropriate response to the racism dictating their lives. The result is an illumination by Cleage of the moral ambiguities inherent in racial struggles, ambiguities that not only pit white against black, but also tear families apart.

Besides sharing a common ancestry, Frank and Sophie also share a desire for personal autonomy in their surroundings. Early in the text, the desires of both are to distance themselves as far from the constraints of racial bias as possible. Sophie divulges that she was motivated to move West because ‘‘Memphis was full of crazy white men acting like when it came to colored people, they didn’t have to be bound by law or common decency.’’ She elaborates, saying that whites were above the law, making living conditions unbearable, adding ‘‘I heard there were Negroes going West.’’ Her vision for the future of Nicodemus is one that stretches beyond ‘‘just one more place where colored people couldn’t figure out how to be free.’’ On some level, both Sophie and Frank clearly recognize the value of personal freedom unadulterated by discrimination.

As coarse as Frank may seem conversationally, his motivations mirror Sophie’s. He has moved to England to avoid similarly oppressive forces. Both Minnie and Frank can walk down English streets, people of color among whites, in a world without reprisal and devoid of Jim Crow laws. Minnie shares with her sisters that as a couple, she and Frank even have white friends. In contrast, as an American resident, Frank claims that both he and his wife are ‘‘just ordinary niggers,’’ that he’ll be reduced to stepping off the street to let ‘‘every ignorant white man’’ pass. Clearly, Sophie and Frank’s plights are the same, as are their personal desires for freedom. Yet the terms by which they choose to define freedom and the paths they choose to take to realize freedom are completely different.

Freedom for Sophie is defined at the outset of the play. She claims she’ll ‘‘have enough’’ when as far as she can see ‘‘there’ll be nothing but land that belongs to me and my sisters.’’ What does land ownership mean? It means that Sophie and her sisters have control over their own surroundings, and by doing so, they can effect change in their lives. The type of change Sophie hopes for is one free of whites, consequently, one free of the oppressive forces that have added up to a life of mistreatment, persecution, and savage abuse. She has a vision of ‘‘colored folks farms and colored folks wheat fields and colored folks cattle everywhere you look.’’ Sophie’s vision is a noble one, demonstrated in her own wishes:

I want this town to be a place where a colored woman can be free to live her life like a human being. I want this town to be a place where a colored man can work as hard for himself as we used to work for white folks. I want a town where a colored child can go to anybody’s door and be treated like they belong there.

A black community based on self-sufficiency fuels Sophie’s vision for the future. Similarly, her personal experiences as a land owner have shaped her dreams. Sophie looks to the task of farming with a sense of accomplishment, as demonstrated in a conversation with Miss Leah. Miss Leah tells Sophie of her initial experience, stating that ‘‘Every other wagon pull in here nowadays got a bunch of colored women on it call themselves homesteadin’ and can’t even make a decent cup of coffee, much less bring a crop in!’’ Homesteading is an avenue by which both Sophie and Miss Leah not only experience a sense of personal achievement but, relative to their accomplishments, can realize a profit, an experience made even more uniquely personal to them. In a world dominated by whites, the prospect of owning a plot of land runs profoundly deeper than the soil comprising it.

Sophie is determined to see nothing but acres of farmland owned by color folks. It is her personal charge to awaken this idea, this spirit in her neighbors. Miss Leah warns that folks don’t necessarily see it that way. While the place is a refuge for them, a way to get away from the torment of white folks settling on land where they are largely ignored, Miss Leah recognizes the dangers in expecting her fellow African American neighbors to side with her. She says, ‘‘The thing you gotta remember about colored folks all the stuff they don’t say when they want to, they just gonna say it double-time later.’’ The privilege of land ownership is the ability to sell one’s property at will as well, and no rules will prevent these property owners from selling. To ask her neighbors to see beyond the realm of selfinterest, to build a sense of community in order to realize freedom, is an arduous or difficult task. Miss Leah warns of a situation in which Sophie is seeing things from her perspective without hearing the underlying tensions or problems that may face Sophie in her efforts to keep the land.

Frank’s aspirations for freedom run along racial lines as well and are framed by his perceptions of people of color. Sophie goes so far as to admit to Minnie she is unnerved by Frank’s hatred of all things colored, and with good reason. Her credibility is solidified by exchanges between her and Frank, occurring throughout the play. In his attempts to get to know Sophie, Frank unexpectedly turns to her and says, ‘‘Min tells me you’re a mulatto.’’ Sophie is startled, and in response Frank qualifies his comments by way of apology for being so obviously personal. He also shares with her that he is a mulatto himself ‘‘interested to know if there are many of us this far West.’’ This response proves to be particularly telling as the events of the play unfold. Frank’s manner remains characteristically course and ungracious. He seems to be particularly haughty and self-serving in his conversations concerning race. In a discussion of England, Frank is quick to comment that the only people of color he encounters are those of Eastern Indian decent. Miss Leah is perplexed and asks him if he gets lonely for colored people, to which he responds, ‘‘To tell you the truth, I’ve seen about all the Negroes I need to see in this life,’’ and laughs. This inspires Miss Leah to excuse herself immediately for bed, to avoid being detained by the ‘‘long-winded’’ member of the group. He is also callous enough to speak of a lynching a week in New Orleans, that it’s ‘‘the same as it’s always been’’ with a chuckle. He’s cut off by Sophie when he claims that the victim brought it on himself due to his own crimes. She responds, ‘‘I don’t care what he was involved in. . . . Whatever it was, he doesn’t deserve to die like that.’’ Cleage makes effective use of Sophie repeatedly in the text as a foil, or a character whose qualities strongly contrast those of Frank’s, to shed light on the moral forces shaping Frank’s conversations. The affront Frank’s comments have on Sophie, as well as the audience, proves to be more disturbing still when examined in the spirit of the social dictates driving them.

Yet even more disturbing is his formula for success—to capitalize on his white heritage in order to realize freedom. At the outset of the play, Frank pins his hopes on the inheritance of his white father, only to have his hopes dashed when he discovers he has no claim to such assets. His vision for success in and of itself is a fallacy—what plagues him is something that runs much deeper than whiteness; it is a fact of heritage. He was born to a slaveholder who ultimately denies Frank by leaving his son out of his will. Yet Frank persists by clinging to his Caucasian ancestry rather than embracing his African roots, as explained by Minnie: ‘‘Frank says he doesn’t see why he only has to be with Negroes since he has as much white blood in him as colored.’’ But to Sophie, the reality of Frank’s background is no different from hers. When Minnie tells Sophie that although Frank’s father was a slave owner, he loved and planned to marry Frank’s African mother, Sophie points out that without evidence of a marriage, his father’s love is a sham. By extension, so are his illusions of being ‘‘white,’’ i.e., moving in society with the same freedoms as other white men. To Sophie, Frank is betraying the memory of his mother and, by extension, of his race.

Frank does consistently disappoint Minnie and her family, despite their efforts to receive him. He showers a rain of abuse upon his wife, in one instance calling her a ‘‘pickanninny’’ for plaiting her hair, in another, beating her for causing his luck to change during the course of a card game. Of the card game, he emphasizes that all was well until he was asked about ‘‘that nigger woman that kept following [him] on the train.’’ He doesn’t share the same perspective on what land ownership could mean for Minnie and her family. He instead blatantly disregards the attempts of his family to keep the land by seizing the deed from his wife with threats of physical harm. In Frank’s shortsightedness, he only sees a hefty cash return and assured passage to England. In the process, he violates his wife’s trust in a brutal assault on her property, willing to desecrate Minnie’s dreams in favor of his own. However deluded the idea may seem, Frank is mentally tied to this idea of freedom from persecution as a function of his appearance and his willing embrace of his ‘‘whiteness.’’ He is a product of a society where both success and freedom are measured by the fairness of one’s skin. But unlike Sophie, he profits from his ancestry by denying and betraying his own family. The irony of this situation is that he was deluded into believing he is somehow exempt from the problems of and obligations to his own people, that he is somehow above the fray, even after he is rejected by his blood relations.

It could be argued that there is no greater wisdom in the choice of Sophie versus that of Frank—both are based on nepotism (family favoritism). In Frank’s case, there is ample evidence in the play to suggest that until recently, his movement in such circles is attributable to his relationship to a white person. Until his father’s death, it is alleged that Frank has been supported solely by the good fortune of a white father. He has enjoyed the bene- fits of money and privilege. By reaping such rewards, he is able to move in circles unheard of in Sophie’s present circumstances. Money has sheltered Frank from the unpleasantries of the discrimination Sophie faces in America. He has been able to act as if he is a free man. His expectations are perfectly reasonable given his history. Frank is a victim of more than just his own naivete, he is victim of the forces which shape both his social and emotional life. On some level, he feels just as betrayed by the white brothers who choose to deny him his inheritance on the basis of color rather than on the wishes of their own father as does Sophie when she discovers Frank plans to intercede in her own dreams of freedom. Can it be argued that Frank is any less adroit under pressing conditions than Sophie in his decision to pose as a white man by moving in primarily white circles?

The illusion of choice and of freewill is a repeated theme with Cleage. Her characters attempt to step outside of their boundaries, which are unforgiving and imposed upon them, in favor of freedom that is seemingly tangible but is often impossibly unrealistic. Frank’s discovery that he is no more exempt from societal boundaries drawn by color than is Sophie leads to his eventual demise. Although Sophie and her counterparts triumph in the end, a contemporary audience is left knowing history will render these landowners helpless against the advances of their white neighbors. In this way, racial atrocities are brought to light again and again by Cleage, the emotional dance played out as we see hopes rise and fall. There is no permanent solace or restitution for any of the characters; there is only the delusion that they will somehow be granted amnesty from the prejudice and injustice dictating their lives. In this way the audience becomes part of this deeply human drama. After all, it is a human tendency to believe in the idea of justice prevailing, of rules being followed, of wrongs being righted, even in the most tragic of circumstances, and Pearl Cleage demonstrates this beautifully in Flyin’ West.

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Flyin’ West, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Motion of Herstory: Three Plays by Pearl Cleage

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1709

Pearl Cleage, highly regarded poet and essayist, first gained widespread recognition as a playwright with the production of puppetplay by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1983. The chronicle of a failed marriage, puppetplay expressed the divided consciousness and ambivalent emotions of the wife through the use of two female actors to portray her, while expressing the perceptual gulf between marital partners by representing the husband as a sevenfoot marionette. Though puppetplay was moderately successful, and though several of her other works have been produced outside of the Just Us Theater and Club Zebra, performance venues which she helped to found in her home city, Atlanta, Georgia, it is through an artistic partnership forged with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and its Artistic Director, Kenny Leon, who commissioned Cleage to write Flyin’ West (1992), Blues for an Alabama Sky (1995), and Bourbon at the Border (1997) that Cleage has realized a rare achievement for African- American playwrights: consistent professional production in regional theatres. Each production has further distilled her exploration of essential thematic elements which fuel her dramatic vision.

Through these three plays, Cleage seeks to bring us to grips with our American past and to help us understand and acknowledge its impact on present conditions, especially with regard to issues of race and gender. She examines great historical events and movements not through the eyes of leaders and celebrities but through the experiences of the ordinary people who lived them. The issue at hand and its relationship to our actions remains the focus, rather than the impersonation of an iconic figure. Cleage’s interest is in helping us face our responsibility for being part of the flow of history (inter- view). Describing herself as ‘‘a third[-]generation black nationalist and a radical feminist,’’ Cleage defines her task as a dramatist as creation of dialectic and political/social action:

My response to the oppression I face is to name it, describe it, analyze it, protest it, and propose solutions to it as loud[ly] as I possibly can every time I get the chance. I purposely people my plays with fast-talking, quick-thinking black women since the theater is, for me, one of the few places where we have a chance to get an uninterrupted word in edgewise.

Cleage has turned to the familiar structure of the well-made play, subtly subverting what appear to be stock situations and characters to invoke new ideas. She is a resistant reader of history, turning her audience toward interrogation of ‘‘standard’’ interpretations, be they from black or white perspectives, and is not hesitant to force the audience into the uncomfortable psychological and emotional areas into which an honest dialogue on race and gender relations must venture.

Flyin’ West, for example, turns domestic melodrama into a polemic against domestic violence while it addresses the issues of what constitutes and defines a family, and whether black nationalism will hold together the community of Nicodemus, Kansas, founded by the Exodusters who ‘‘flew’’ West to escape racist oppression during the late nineteenth century. A family of homesteading sisters—Fannie, Minnie, and adopted sister Sophie— augmented by Miss Leah, a survivor of slavery who has passed the long winter on their farm, not only persevere but thrive on the products of their labors. As Minnie approaches her twenty-first birthday, they prepare to turn over her portion of the homestead to her. However, her new husband, Frank, through his verbally and physically abusive behavior, threatens not only Minnie’s life, but the homestead itself, since he plans to sell Minnie’s share to white land speculators who are attempting to buy out Nicodemus and the surrounding area. Empowered by his legal position as male and husband, Frank feels he can act with impunity, and he can only be stopped by a family conspiracy which leads to his death.

Flyin’ West primarily a study in character contrasts. Sophie, oldest sister and head of the family, like Frank, is of mixed race. Frank follows the tragic mulatto pattern of internal conflict and hatred of his black heritage, while Sophie embraces her black identity and the idea of nationalistic autonomy that Nicodemus represents. In defense of the things she loves and believes in, she finds her voice as a woman and a community leader, while Frank plots the course of his own destruction. Another male character, Wil, appears as a suitor for Fannie and contrasting foil for Frank, but it is the struggle for the direction of the family and the community, represented through the struggle Sophie leads against Frank, which is paramount. Despite his painful past and his stature as a recognized poet, Frank is held accountable; his violent acts bring violent retribution. In one of her most well-known essays, ‘‘Mad at Miles,’’ Cleage explains that no artist, no matter how brilliant the art, is excused from responsible behavior toward family and community, and that the creations by artists who refuse this responsibility is tainted and should be rejected by the community. Even the creations of a Miles Davis must be rejected in light of his documented abuses of women.

In a similar vein, Angel, the pivotal character in Blues for an Alabama Sky, is called to account for her refusal to take responsibility for her actions. Angel, an entertainer riding the last wave of the Harlem Renaissance, must survive in Depressionera Harlem. Through Angel’s relationships with Guy, her resolutely un-closeted gay friend and protector; Delia, an idealistic social worker; Sam, a world-weary black doctor; and Leland, a suitor freshly arrived in Harlem from Alabama, Cleage gives us a view of a Harlem embroiled in controversy over the issue of reproductive rights. Using historical fact, she dramatizes the conflict between Margaret Sanger, who opened a family-planning clinic in Harlem with the support of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the remnants of Marcus Garvey’s followers and others, who viewed Sanger as an agent of genocide.

To relieve their anxiety over their economic survival, Guy shares with Angel his tenement apartment and his dream of designing costumes in Paris for the legendary Josephine Baker, who ‘‘laughs like a free woman.’’ Angel, however, can only see her destiny in terms of the economic and emotional support of a man, and uses her body as the commodity through which she will achieve this support. Her myopic pursuit of self-interest strains her relationship with Guy to the breaking point and leads her to ignore the dangerous ground she treads in her relationship with Leland, who tries to recast her in the mold of his deceased wife, who died in childbirth. The disastrous results of Leland’s obsession with Angel culminate in a crime of passion which costs Sam his life. In a final act of poetic justice, Guy leaves for Paris, taking Delia, Sam’s grieving lover, with him and leaving Angel alone to contemplate her next move.

The action of Bourbon at the Border is set in 1995, but actually pivots around the events of Freedom Summer, the black voter registration drive which took place in Mississippi in 1964. Murdered volunteer workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Cheney were only three among the casualties of that effort. Two who survived, physically if not emotionally, Charlie and May, are the protagonists of Bourbon. Their antagonists are wounds that cannot heal, outrage that cannot be quelled, and guilt over their inability to protect each other from suffering. They share a small apartment near the Ambassador Bridge which connects Detroit, Michigan, with Windsor, Ontario. Their odyssey to escape their pain has led them there, ‘‘like desperadoes drinking bourbon at the border and planning our getaway.’’ May’s dream, like the dreams of runaway slaves, is to find peace in the Canadian wilderness; she and Charlie cling to the memory of a few happy days they once spent there.

May walks an emotional tightrope as she struggles to negotiate the couple’s material and emotional survival, trying to help Charlie regain his balance without losing her own. When Charlie enters the apartment, returning from another in a series of confinements in a psychiatric hospital, he vows to make one more attempt to overcome his despair. Hope arrives in the form of Rosa, their downstairs neighbor, and her latest paramour, Tyrone, a truck driver who helps Charlie get a job where he works. Left with a permanent limp from wounds he received in Viet Nam, Tyrone bonds with Charlie in the realization that they are in actuality casualties of the same war.

At first Rosa and Tyrone appear to be comic relief, bruised but hearty survivors of hard times, dancing to Johnnie Taylor’s blues and Motown oldies. Rosa’s employment-seeking ventures, including an audition for a job as a phone sex operator, provoke empathetic laughter. However, Cleage makes them much more. Rosa and Tyrone have tried to skate on top of the system, while May and Charlie have paid dearly for trying to change it. They have received nothing but indifference or hostility in return. In an explosive second-act confrontation with Rosa, May recounts the traumatic events of Freedom Summer which inexorably shaped her future and drove Charlie to madness. Through May, Cleage demands that we examine our own positions on the borders between white and black experiences as well as the lines of demarcation of our perceptions of the events, and the ramifications of those events, which surrounded the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.

The violence of the past, violence our nation has yet to come to terms with, is eventually manifested in the present, directly and indirectly, and death ensues. May’s efforts to endure the unendurable and to fight to the end a losing battle to regain for herself and for Charlie what was brutally taken from them in Mississippi raise her to tragic stature. She is the most complete and ultimately heroic of the women at the core of Cleage’s three ‘‘history plays.’’ Through Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Bourbon at the Border, Cleage demands that we air the festering wounds of our history, as black and white Americans and as men and women, so that we can begin to clean and heal them.

Source: Freda Scott Giles, ‘‘The Motion of Herstory: Three Plays by Pearl Cleage,’’ in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997, pp. 709–12.

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Critical Overview