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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Written by Greg Arrastia, Third-Year New Victory Usher

During the recent run of FLY at The New Victory Theater, I had the great pleasure of getting to know three real-life Tuskegee Airmen! I had a lot of questions for them, and they were more than happy to answer them and share a few of their stories with me.

 

Third-Year Usher Greg Arrastia with Tuskegee Airmen Audley Coulthurst and Dabney Montgomery
Greg got to know Tuskegee Airmen Audley Coulthurst and Dabney Montgomery during the run of Fly, when they attended a pair of special Talk-Back events.
These men, who bravely served in our country's military at a time when they weren't accepted by others, really made a difference. They risked their lives to make the world a better place. To be given the opportunity to meet some of the Tuskegee Airmen is an honor that I won't forget. I remember a story one of the airmen told me about the time he walked up to a set of water fountains—one was for whites only, and the other solely for blacks. "Simply taking a drink of water from the wrong fountain could have gotten me killed," he said. And yet, he sipped from the "Whites Only" fountain, proving that he was determined to take a stand against discrimination and oppression.

As I observed and got to know these men, I noticed that they were not only funny, soft-spoken and young-at-heart; they were really strong, too—physically, mentally and emotionally. One of the airmen told me that he worked as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s security guard. Wow! I mean, just to get to meet Dr. King, an amazing man who made a huge impact on society, would be such a huge honor. I can't imagine what it must have been like having the job of protecting Dr. King.

Listening to their stories helped me to think about life, and our country's history, in a different way. One thing that will stick with me is the moment one of the airmen looked me in the eyes and said, "Don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't do something. People will try to tell you that because they haven't done it. Anything you put your mind to, you can do. Don't let anyone hold you back. We are living examples of that!"

I wish everyone could have the experience of talking with someone who has been such an important part of our history. Being with these amazing men and listening to their stories changed my life. To be honest, I never really found history to be all that interesting. That is, until I saw FLY and got to meet the airmen. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen should be talked about more in schools. It's an important part of our history, and people need to know what they went through and what a difference they made. It was a blessing to get to know these inspiring men.

This is definitely an experience that I'll keep with me—always.
 
 
Greg Arrastia Greg Arrastia is a Third-Year Usher who hails from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Greg’s #LoveOfTheater began right here at the New Vic, and he also enjoys playing basketball and working out at the gym. He credits the New Victory Usher Corps for highlighting the importance of helping others and teaching him how to be a leader. You can learn more about Greg in his Usher Spotlight from earlier this season.

FLY, playing through March 27 at the New Vic, lets audiences experience firsthand the anguish, failures, fears and triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew through the skies over Europe and North Africa fighting for freedom abroad—and at home—during World War II. Take a quick look at our sneak peak of this high-flying theatrical action-adventure about the first black military aviators in U.S. history. 
 

This amazing story comes to life through  stunning projections, vibrant lighting and a Tap Griot, who acts as a modern Greek chorus-like figure, expressing the extraordinary perseverance and determination of these courageous men through dance. Fly director and co-author Ricardo Khan sat down to tell us about the inspiring journey of bringing Fly, which he calls “a story that needs to be told and shared and loved and embraced by all of us,” to the stage.

What inspired you to make dance so central to Fly?

The cast of Fly rehearsed in The New 42nd Street Studios in January of this year.

I was looking for a way to tell this story in a way that didn’t sound, smell or feel like a history lesson.  Like “the river we stand in,” this part of our history is alive in the contemporary experience, as is the Hip Hop culture and aesthetic. So tap, our way, became the needle and thread to tell the parts of this story that words could not express, and the bridge for us—living in a contemporary world—to feel the emotions that these 1940s characters must have been feeling, but were not allowed to express, back then.  Since making the choice to use tap, it’s been about listening to the voices in my head, sharing those voices with Omar Edwards during the six years of the show’s development, and employing imagination and our “non-worded” results into the storytelling style of Fly.

What inspired you to create the Tap Griot?
There had to be a great level of rage swelling up in these young men, equalled by the same amount of joy and exuberance from being able to fly. I needed a way to show that, because I knew that mere words could not get us there. The Tap Griot is a storyteller—referred to in the western African traditions simply as a Griot. To draw from the ancestral path, through a young, contemporary vehicle was my goal, bringing the two worlds together in an artistic expression of our story, indescribable through words,and leaving imagination up to those who see it.

How important was music in the creation of Fly?
Music is always important to me. It’s critical to telling any African American-rooted story, because music has been so very crucial to our survival and sanity. I use drums in rehearsal because, as a director, I take many paths to get into the pulse and rhythms of a play and its characters. There are the actors’ voices, the actions of the scene and there is the music, the beat, the connection to their place and purpose in the universe. It’s not just contextual.  Music is everything—it’s just that sometimes music can be used in ways far different for me than most would imagine.

The four main characters seem incredibly connected to each other. How did those relationships take shape during the rehearsal process?
There are rituals I incorporate into the rehearsal process in order to bring focus to that particular circle of people. They need to become that circle if the work is to be lifted the way it needs to.  Especially in this particular play, a sense of ensemble is essential. That and mutual respect for artists, our art and our heroes. So, in the process, collective energies, spirit, ancestral awareness and heart surround the making of the work.

 


Ricardo Khan (center) and the cast and crew of Fly worked with Dr. Roscoe Brown (right of center), Tuskegee Airman and Commander of the 332 Fighter Group, during the rehearsal process.
Why did you and your co-author, Trey Ellis, choose to create a theater piece to tell this story?
Theater is magic to me. It’s what first brought excitement, awe and the power of imagination to my life in a way television and film never could have. So, my life and love is theater. It always has been. Where else could something live be experienced in such a way by an audience—made up of people from many different paths—and be appreciated for the impact it has had on that particular audience? Changing lives through a living experience of the arts—that’s why.

Where did your #LoveOfTheater start?
It started when I was a kid growing up in Camden, New Jersey.  We traveled on a bus to New York as part of the monthly outings that a local social group had organized. The plan was to see the Broadway show, Hello, Dolly! I hadn’t thought that much of it prior, except for the fact that it was about going to New York and that was pretty cool. But in that theater, when the lights went down and the curtain went up, something extraordinary happened in me. It was Hello, Dolly!, all right, but with an all-black cast, led by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway! My eyes lit up because I saw people on stage, on Broadway, who looked like me. It was telling me that I could do whatever it was that I wanted to do in life.  So I did just that.

What is something you hope New Victory audiences will take away from this production?
Love for self, pride in our history, respect for others and the realization that nothing is impossible and no mountain is too high to climb. Strive for excellence in everything you do and you will naturally be the best you that you can be.
 
 
What story or event from U.S. history would you like to see told through theater and dance? Let us know with #Fly on Twitter @NewVictory, or in the comments below! FLY is playing at The New Victory Theater through March 27. Come see the story of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen unfold before your very eyes!
Posted by Zack Ramadan
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