From left, Brandon Callender, Joseph Pendleton, Devin A. Cunningham and Luchan Baker appear in African-American Shakespeare Company’s “Black Eagles.” (Courtesy Joseph Giammarco)

‘Black Eagles’ tells sadly timely Tuskegee Airmen story

Injustice is a fertile seed for good drama. So is aspiration. Both are central themes in “Black Eagles” onstage in an African-American Shakespeare Company production at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre.

Much has been written about the Tuskegee Airmen, named for the Alabama airfield where they trained and the university where they were educated. They were the first squad of African-American pilots deemed combat-ready and deployed in the U.S. military.

The government considered these men who were willing to defend and possibly die for their country as superficially inadequate. Sadly, that sort of thinking has not receded to embarrassing historical footnote status. It is being repeated today, albeit with a new designated “other,” making a production of this play by Leslie Lee uniquely timely.

With a nicely drawn framing device of present-meets-past, Lee individualizes the mythology of the airmen and their motivations beyond patriotism. Some are focused on advancing the race, some on personal validation.

Some are pragmatically patient, while others, such as characters popularized by thousands of white actors in a century of “Top Gun” archetypes, are the impetuous flyboys itching for battle.

Like a wise and compassionate commanding officer, director L. Peter Callender coaxes the individual stories into the spotlight, drawing emotionally honest performances from a cast with variable performance skills. The bonhomie among this band of brothers is clear, and as much as they scrap and squabble, you know they would die for each other.

There are some slow, over-talked moments throughout, but Callender makes the most of the personal vignettes in Lee’s script.

A romantic relationship between Buddy (Donald Antoine) and Pia (Margherita Ventura), an Italian woman, is poignantly played as she asks him to be sure his commitment to her is not just for the manifold novelty of their circumstance.

Roscoe (Ron Chapman) only expresses his inner self through the voice of Julius, his ventriloquist puppet.

Nolan (Brandon Callender) is impatiently and disquietingly all about “the kill” in opposition to Clarkie (Luchan Baker), who espouses a slow-but-steady march to parity, and the entire squad delivers a rousing juba-inspired step march exercise choreographed by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes.

The appropriately spare barracks setting by Kate Boyd could have been greatly enhanced through the use of projections, but the combat-ready costumes by Sarah Smith create a satisfying ambiance.

The production does not shirk from the cringe-inducing and, perhaps, wearily familiar racist tropes of the time. They are presented with prejudice, in the legal sense, but not sensationally. The value in that is the viewer who has not lived them can try to absorb them and learn.

REVIEW

Black Eagles

Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company

Where: Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., S.F,

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31

Tickets: $35

Contact: www.brownpapertickets.com

Theater

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