Saturday’s performance of “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” the longest Off-Broadway production, was one of irony. The performers, African-American men, told the story of World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen in Waybur Theater, a place that was once segregated and not completely open to them.
Saturday was also a first for the performers because Fort Knox is the first time the play has been performed on a military installation. More than 385 from the Fort Knox and surrounding communities came out to watch the performance.
Layon Gray, writer, director and actor in “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” said the idea for writing the play came from watching then President George Bush present the Congressional Gold Medal to former Tuskegee Airmen in 2009.
“I was … watching TV and I was so moved by these men who were in their 80s and 90s walking on stage with crutches and canes and still full of energy, he said about the Airmen receiving medals from Bush. “It brought tears to my eyes. We always say before each show, ‘this is before all of those who came before us and those yet to be born.’”
He added that it’s also about educating children because the Airmen’s story isn’t in history books.
“We take a portion of the play and go to the school system and present to the kids, and it’s always a beautiful thing when they come up and say, ‘wow, I learned so much today,’” said Gray. “And it’s not just little black kids. They say, ‘we learned so much about the Tuskegee Airmen.’ It should be in the history books we are fighting for that to get this part of history into the books.”
Gray also recalled in the early ‘90s when an HBO movie told their story. He wanted to do something different from the Hollywood perspective. A friend told him a Tuskegee Airmen lived around the corner and Gray used that opportunity to talk to the Airman about his experiences and the war.
“I had an opportunity to sit down with this gentleman and listen to him talk,” he said. “He didn’t talk too much about all of the medals and the awards. What he talked about mostly was the brotherhood they created and the friends that he met from around the world. I knew that was the angle I wanted to tell my story about the Tuskegee Airmen.
“So those who come and see the play they will see the six or seven men from totally different parts of the country become a brotherhood and understand they have the whole race on their shoulders.”
Gray added that he didn’t want to write a play where anyone could get online and find everything that they needed to know. Although the story is based on true events, Gray said it’s a fictional story. He wanted to be creative and tell a story about the professional and personal trials and tribulations of the Airmen.
He pointed out that over the years he’s had a chance to perform in front of the original Tuskegee Airmen. In 2009 during the Tuskegee Airmen convention in Las Vegas an Tuskegee Airmen came up to him in tears and thanked him for not only telling their story but getting it right.
“The play has received all kind of reviews and awards but this one Airmen came up to me and he was in tears and he said, ‘Layon you told our story right. Somebody finally told our story right,’” he said about the performance. “And that has stayed with me throughout the whole eight, nine years of this piece.”
Although the play has performed around the country and received recognition, Gray said it’s important to keep retelling this story because it’s not just African-American history but a big part of American history. A part of history that’s know well-known to others, he said.
“A lot of people don’t know about (the Airmen),” he said. “I say we can do that by continuing to do this show, by continuing to run in it New York City, by continuing to touring it and now that we are bringing it to the military. “We have been trying to do and with Lavish Entertainment behind us. We look forward to sharing this story around the world and possibly nationally to all of the troops.”
Reginal Roberson of Lavish Experiences and Productions said for the last decade he has wanted to do more with the military community because he’s a former service member and his wife is still serving in the Air Force. “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” is a story of people coming together and overcoming challenges, he said.
“We decided to create an organization called Project Experience and Gratitude,” explained Roberson. “So we ran some pilots out in California at a few bases where we bring talent in to engage the community. What we found they wanted more than just scratch the surface in ‘thank you for your service.’
“I had the pleasure of connecting with Layon and I knew of the play and their exciting run. One my close friends had the opportunity of doing a birthday for Sidney Poitier and Sidney Poitier attended the play with Cicely Tyson and was moved. It made me look at the play and say maybe this is the first platform that we can bring through Project Experience Gratitude to the right installation.”
Roberson said he talked to Army officials and received a hot list of military installations. From that list he found a story about the Tuskegee Airmen who used to train at Godman field and live on Fort Knox. He said he believed this would be the best way to launch this endeavor and tell the story.
“We felt what better time to tell the story in this community during Black History Month,” Roberson said. “We thought it’s a unique story that hits on all of the themes when we looked at Project Experience Gratitude. We wanted to engage the community on a motivational level, achievement level, historic level one that could inspire the individual through storytelling at the core, but most importantly, one to inspire touch families.
“This was as Layon called it hallowed ground where Tuskegee Airmen trained (and) lived for a period of time before leaving this country to fight. It brought full circle what they are doing so that’s why (they are performing at) Fort Knox. We are looking for it to being a catalyst to bringing to multiple installations around the country and communities.”
Roberson also has a personal stake in this story because his wife’s grandfather is a Tuskegee Airman and his wife graduated college from Tuskegee University.
“My wife’s grandfather is one of the first parachute troopers out of Montgomery, Alabama,” he said. “I’m personally invested in the story because it doesn’t matter what your race is (or) nationality …this is a story of gentlemen who fought amongst a group where a nation and a country was not all accepting. They answered the call with second-hand weapons, second-hand machinery, they fought not for their race (and) they fought as Americans for America.”
Although Gray has received positive feedback about the play, he surprisingly received praise in a different form after a performance in Vermont to a sold-out venue of more than 1,500.
“They were moved to tear,” Gray said about the performance in Vermont. “One gentleman in the audience was in the war with the Tuskegee Airmen and they protected his plane. He validated everything. He was in tears. He said, ‘these guys were the best. We asked for them –we wanted them. They protected us.’
“Everybody can identify with the underdog wanting to succeed and that’s what we go through. No matter what they threw at these guys they stayed. If their shoes weren’t shined right or tied they were kicked out. They had to be 300 percent prepared above anyone else and they were.”
Although Fort Knox doesn’t usually put have Off-Broadway production on the installation, at the conclusion of the play the crowd showed their thanks through a standing ovation as the performers came onto the stage for the last time. One of the more than 385 guests who watched the performance was Col. Steve Aiton, the commander of Garrison Command who said he liked the acting.
“I was impressed with the production and the emotion the actors brought to the incredible story of these courageous men, some who trained and lived right here on Fort Knox,” said Aiton. “This was the first time this play was executed on a military installation. Fitting it was here at our post and great to see so many Families take advantage of a great tribute to this piece of American history.”