Though a perfect product in many respects, playwright Charlayne Woodard's one-act Flight (through Sunday, Nov. 13, at ACT Theatre; 206-292-7676), a collection of African-American folktales set in antebellum Savannah, feels like an updated, politically correct Song of the South, a too sunny journey into the realm of magic realism amid the dehumanized dealings of the plantation.
Directed at a melodious clip by Valerie Curtis-Newton, the play centers on a pair of slaves the audience never actually sees: Sadie, a matriarchal powerhouse recently sold up the river for displaying the unpardonable crime of literacy, and her son Li'l Jim, a boy experiencing such grief over his mother's disappearance that he has shinnied up a weeping willow to hide. Leading the search for Jim is Oh Beah (Margo Moorer), who gathers her kin at the foot of the tree as they try to literally narrate the boy down to earth with a cycle of storytelling. They talk, sing, and dance through the night, describing a circle of light and hope in these dark times.
The stories themselves—of the "and that's how day and night came to be" mode—are oddly underwhelming. For the most part, they feel recycled and a bit flat, they don't stitch together well, and their point isn't exactly clear. However, if the folktales add little to our cultural understanding of the African-American oral tradition, they are nevertheless told with great flair, recovering with sheer exuberance what they lack in inspiration. The cast, which also includes David Brown Jr., Johnny Lee Davenport, Dawn Frances, and Tracy Michelle Hughes, is excellent, and wrings every ounce of authentic emotion (and then some) from Woodard's language.
The problem is that the material veers dangerously close to the kind of Disney-fied nostalgia that afflicts certain simplified renderings of race. Even given the inherent, homespun simplicity of folktales, Flight leans a bit too comfortably on the sentiment that all slaves were deeply soulful, quietly resilient, and preternaturally given to the call of blood and family—stereotypes doubly re- inforced here by the conspicuous absence of Southern whites, who are only mimicked in the stories as rabid, whip-yielding monsters. Such clear-cut delineations of good and evil, besides satisfying the liberal pieties of the audience, undermines faith in the protagonists as real, complex, living-and-breathing human beings.
Depending on how you shine it, light has a funny way of either illuminating or blinding. Flight's light seems bent only on pleasing, rather than challenging, the audience. By distancing and mystifying the historic atrocity of slavery, and then wrapping the characters in a daydreamy gauze of nostalgic longing, Flight at times ironically falls prey to the idea of the past as utopia, a simpler, more hopeful time. It's a perfectly natural sentiment, but a dangerous one for art to indulge. Too much hope, too much uplift, and even the most hope-hungry audience will grow suspicious. "This is a dark time," Oh Beah tells the others. "We gonna bring light to this dark"—the message could as easily be aimed at a post-Watts, post-Rodney-King-verdict society fled up the tree of its own cynicism.
There's nothing wrong with pure enter-tainment. Yet, given the monumental significance the issue of slavery holds in any accounting of our history, as well as the continuing sticky position race holds in our national dialogue, artists have a particular responsibility to treat the subject more deeply. Flight is beautiful to look at, well paced, and strongly acted, but it comes up candy, full of empty calories.