Abandoned at 8, man becomes the first Black fighter pilot
If Eugene Bullard was a fictional character his story would likely be easier to believe.
Abandoned by his family at eight years old, he decided to leave the US and head to France. For four years he walked through Georgia, working along the way, until he reached the coast where he managed to stowaway on a ship to Liverpool, England.
There, he met a man who trained him as a boxer. A series of remarkable events and racial injustices followed before he made history as the first African American fighter pilot. Having been rejected by the US, he flew for France in the First World War and became a hero.
Wings of Courage will air tomorrow night as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts’ free online concert series.
The two-man play is being put on by Mad River Theater Works, which fell in love with the story after seeing “a little blurb on the History channel” in the 1990s.
“We’re always looking for a good story, especially ones that are relatively unbelievable and this one certainly did fill the bill,” said Bob Lucas, the songwriter and music director in residence at the Ohio theatre. “This is one heck of a great story.
“In fact we were proved out by the fact that right after we received permission from Eugene’s family to make this play, Steven Spielberg came and bought all the rights to his story. That’s the quality of story that is the Eugene Bullard story.”
As it happened “the story was just too big” for the screen, the famed film director decided a miniseries was necessary to tell Eugene’s tale but hasn’t yet found the time to do it.
“We were lucky that we got in under the wire because I don’t know that they would have allowed us to make the play,” Mr Lucas said. “[Being there first] gave us full permission – they could give us his letters and his books and stuff like that.
“No one had had an interest in him at all up until that point. In fact the United States Air Force Museum didn’t even mention Eugene Bullard until Steven Spielberg went to them and said, ‘You’ve got to cover this guy. He was up in the air before the Tuskegee Airmen.’”
Wings of Courage has “been very well received” having played at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Museum of the US Air Force and all over the United States.
Tomorrow will be the first time it will show here, albeit virtually.
“I told the [Festival] we would’ve come to Bermuda – all you had to do was ask,” Mr Lucas laughed. “But the pandemic’s made things strange and you just can’t do things the way you thought you might. We’ve had two-and-a-half tours cancelled because of the Covid. But things are coming back and it won’t be long before we’ll be out there beating a trail.
“If you’re into making theatre or movies you don’t just want to tell that story, you want to show that story and that’s what making a play does. And so we show the story with music. It’s not just a reading there’s all kinds of songs that actually move the story, move the plot along. It’s a wonderful tale.”
Mr Lucas plays Johnny, a man who befriends Eugene in Liverpool and teaches him how to box.
“Johnny becomes the main story teller and his main friend who helps him through some troubles,” he said. “However one of the things that you do when you make a play like this is sometimes you have to tell a fib to tell the truth and so Johnny is not altogether a real person. He’s an amalgamation of a bunch of different forces and people that Eugene came up against.”
Mr Lucas also plays the man who fights Eugene’s father, which causes him to flee without his eight-year-old son.
“The mother was dead, his brothers and sisters had already moved out of the house and his father got into a fight with a guy down at his job and his life was in danger because it was a White man. So he had to split and leave Eugene alone.
“And Eugene, at eight years old, decided to go to Paris. He started walking. He walked in the direction of the ocean. It took him four years – he had a little bunch of jobs here and there – and finally he made it to the sea coast and he stowed away on a steam ship and made it to Liverpool.”
From boxing he moved into music, becoming a bandleader, a drummer and also a dancer.
“He came by it all in perfect happenstance,” Mr Lucas said. “He joined the French Foreign Legion when he was 15 or 16 to fight in the First World War and saved a regiment of men single-handedly. He was so badly wounded after that he could never be a drummer or a dancer again – he had trouble walking without a limp – so he learnt how to fly.”
Mr Lucas was born into a family of entertainers. In high school he learnt from his brother, who was then completing his PhD in musical theory.
“I was understanding all that and I was applying it to my instrument,” said the guitarist, who also plays the banjo, fiddle and mandolin. “By the time I got out of high school I wanted to go to college and learn how to write. I got in and it was going to be four years before I was going to be able to take composition courses. I was already writing and so I said I’ll see you later, and I took off.
“As I came of age I was determined. One thing led to another and I’ve had some major and minor successes [since].”
In 1986 he was going through a divorce and needed a steady job when he got a phone call.
“I was 35 years old, I had some children, and the director of this theatre company said, ‘I understand you’re a pretty good writer.’ I said, ‘Well, people tell me that.’ I try not to blow my own horn too loud.
“He offered me a job – and then I had to learn about theatre. And I’ve been working here ever since.”
One of the joys of working with Mad River is that it’s unlike any other company out there, Mr Lucas added.
“There’s all kinds of satisfaction in this world that go beyond making money,” he said. “I think the world has changed and I think we definitely have nudged it in that direction. That’s how I like to think about it.
“[We’re] involved in telling stories that need to be told. There’s a profound quality to working with Mad River. In our stories and in our shows, we don’t talk down to the audience at all, even though our shows are designed for young people. It’s our job to show this young population yeah, sometimes the road can get rocky and be mighty hard but if you persevere you can do well.”