UCSC Theater Group Channels Tuskegee Airmen in ‘Black Eagles’
Halfway through the UCSC African American Theater Arts Troupe’s (AATAT) Thursday evening rehearsal, director Donald Williams steps onto the stage to address his students, and it takes me several minutes to realize this isn’t part of a scene in this year’s production “Black Eagles.” The seven actors are maintaining the Tuskegee airmen military stance not for a scripted interaction with a commander, but to listen to what Williams has to say.
Williams often elicits that response. He talks with his whole body—practically dancing at moments—and with a coffee in one hand and the other gesturing emphatically, he reminds the students that after 23 years of heading the troupe, his goal is still the same: educate and inspire.
“I believe in lifting people higher than yourself,” Williams says, before the students vote on which of them will receive a $5,000 scholarship.
Williams had mentioned the scholarship on the phone earlier that day in a manner verging on nonchalance—he’s proud of the group, you can tell, like when he briefly says AATAT will perform “Black Eagles” at local schools—but he’s also unwaveringly sincere.
Leslie Lee wrote “Black Eagles” about the all-black WWII fighter squadron who were mainly bomber plane escorts (all the danger, none of the action) in 1992, but Williams picked it up fairly recently after a friend highlighted some forgotten local history; Seaside was once predominantly African-American because of the Fort Ord military base, and the Santa Cruz lighthouse was protected by an all-black regiment throughout WWII.
Many real-life Tuskegee airmen returned home to blatant racism, after bleeding for the stars and stripes, because 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement that was the American reality.
During Thursday’s rehearsal, one of the actors raises his hand to ask if David Cunningham, the son of a Tuskegee airman who’s in the audience with his wife would show them the position of a flyer in a jet. I get the sense that this is what Williams’s goal looks like in real time—students captivated by a messenger of history.
“We’re so divided, but we need to look at the positive history of things we did together as a collective—this play is really for everyone,” says Williams. “In order to have a true understanding of our future, we have to have a perspective of the past.”
Info: 6:30 p.m., Feb. 19-22, March 6, UCSC Stevenson Event Center and Cabrillo College. www.cadrc.org. Students Free, $10-$12. PHOTO: Actors in UCSC’s African American Theater Arts Troupe fly fighter planes in WWII in ‘Black Eagles’. KATHRYN DOUGLAS