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Tuskegee Airmen honored in art exhibit, theatrical production

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, focus on contributions of black fliers.

One of the more interesting ways to bring history to life is through the arts.

In this case, we’re talking about World War II’s heroic Tuskegee Airmen, the black fliers who demonstrated — at a time when the United States military was racially segregated — that black fliers could excel in the United States Army Air Forces.

An art exhibit that highlights their contributions —“Red Tails, Silver Wings” — is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force through February and their inspiring story is being creatively interpreted on stage at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park where the play “Fly” is now in previews and officially opens this week. It runs through Oct. 5.

The two art forms were brought together recently when the cast and production crew of “Fly” visited the Air Force Museum to learn more about the history they are bringing to the stage.

“It was a wonderful experience,” says Omar Edwards, the talented tap dancer who plays the role of the ‘Tap Griot’ in the play and compares his part to that of a Greek chorus.

“A griot is an African storyteller and every village has a griot, the person who tells the story in a hip, cool fashion,” he explains. “I’m there to be the emotions of the pilots and to express — in dance — what they are going through — whether it’s racism, good times or personal matters.”

Tapping through life

Edwards, a professional tap dancer for more than 26 years, has appeared on Broadway, in films and on television and was one of the original cast members of the NBC series, “Showtime at the Apollo.” He was also in the New York musical, “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and a winner of Star Search.

He originated his current role — and all of its tap choreography — and has played The Tap Griot at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company and at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The play was originally commissioned by Lincoln Center Education as a student show and is recommended for audiences ages 10 and older.

“What I love about tap is that I can do whatever I like when I’m dancing, I can express the feelings, the rhythm of life, the struggle,” he says.

At the Air Force Museum, Edwards says he especially loved seeing the “beautiful Tuskegee paintings,” particularly the portrait of Dr. Roscoe Brown.

“He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and has been the main consultant on the show,” says Edwards. “All of the casts of ‘Fly’ have met with him, He’s 91 now and this Cincinnati cast met him through Skype.”

Artist Chris Hopkins

The painting of Brown and the 34 others on display in the museum’s Hall of Honor, were created by artist Chris Hopkins of Everett, Wash., a participant in the Air Force Art Program.

“Since their inception, the branches of the military have always had artists accompany the troops, even after the advent of the camera,” Hopkins explains. “What the Air Force did was different because instead of having an enlisted person as an artist, they went to professional art groups and got professional artists to come with them on missions.”

Hopkins, who specializes in creating oil paintings of historic narratives, says he knew what he wanted to be when he was just five years old.

“I drew a parrot in kindergarten and I liked the attention I got from it,” he remembers. “I’ve always had a fondness for history and in 2000 I was commissioned to do a big job for the Northwest Coast First Nations. I was able to immerse myself in a different culture, in the history of the Northwest Coast Native Tribes, I was able to work with tribal noblemen and chiefs.”

In 2004 Hopkins accepted the invitation to join the Air Force Art Program where he contributes paintings to document events relating to current and historical Air Force operations. In 2006, he created “Butterflies,” the first in what would become the current touring exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen.

“It is a pilot standing on a wing of a P-51 Mustang with his thumbs up,” Hopkins says. “I found it intriguing that this group of individuals were basically fighting two battles — they were fighting a battle abroad against the Nazi’s and a world threat, and they were also fighting a domestic battle for dignity at home.”

The series is a result of years of research. Hopkins especially appreciated the opportunity to interview many of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“What I’m trying to do more than anything is relay their story through visual means,” he explains. “That’s what a narrative artist does as opposed to painting a landscape. I’m trying to tell as much of the story as I can on a limited surface of canvas. And there’s so much more of the story than just the heroes who shot down the enemy planes and supported the bombers.”

Historical artifacts

Edwards says the museum’s historian, Jeffrey S. Underwood, was “just amazing” when he spoke to the group from the Cincinnati Playhouse.

Underwood, who has worked as an Air Force historian since 1988, says the tour of the museum’s permanent exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen gave cast members a greater appreciation of what the war would have been like for the African-American they portray on stage.

“They had the opportunity to see firsthand what the Tuskegee Airmen wore, what types of aircraft they flew, and the types of enemy aircraft they fought,” he explains. “They saw the types of weapons fired against them, and they took the opportunity to view through an actual gun sight just like those used by the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Like other visitors to the museum, he says, they saw for themselves just how large — -or small — a P-51 Mustang, a Messerschmitt Bf109, or a B-17 really is.

“They can read about it, but when they walk up and stand close to one, you can see a little light go on in people’s faces,” he says. “And they took the opportunity to ‘fly’ the simulators.”

A powerful play

“Fly”, which integrates live action, video projections and tap dance, comes from the creative minds of Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan.

Khan, the co-playwright who is directing the Cincinnati production, is the co-founder of the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey that aims at presenting positive and honest images of black culture, life and history.

“My mother is black and my father is an Indian from Trinidad and they met at Howard University at the time of the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement,” he says. “So my siblings and I grew up with that sense of black history and pride. ” He says he learned a lot from the Tuskegee Airmen.

“In getting to know them, I got to appreciate their soul, their spirit,” he says. “Not just for what they accomplished but for who they were. It was my desire to do a play that not only commemorated them as American heroes, but also tried to capture the souls of these people.”

Khan says he wanted to tell the story in a visceral way, especially because Lincoln Center commissioned him to tell the story for young people.

“If we didn’t want to bore them, we needed to make use of what theater is all about, which is magic, imagery, excitement.”

Love of flight

Khan says all of the airmen — whether black or white — shared a love of flying.

“They played with paper airplanes as boys and they grew up wanting to fly,” he says. “It happened that the Army Air Corps gave them the opportunity to learn, and they also had the opportunity to serve their country.”

Khan says he’s interested in history and how it connects to the present day. He says the Tuskegee Airmen were courageous, brave, talented, highly intelligent and had the stuff of heroes.

“They are the kind of role models we want our young people today to emulate,” he says.

Underwood says the Tuskegee Airmen helped to dispel the widely held belief that blacks were inferiors who could not perform any more than menial tasks.

“At a time when the American public remained extremely fascinated by aviation and held pilots in the highest regard, what better way to disprove the myths of racial inferiority than by flying fighter planes in successful combat against a highly-regarded enemy?” he asks. “The Tuskegee Airmen advanced the cause of Civil Rights far beyond what anybody might have imaged before the war. Their efforts led directly to the desegregation of the United States’ armed forces after World War II. They changed the course of American history.”

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