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‘You told our story right’: Play about Tuskegee Airmen coming to Bermuda Festival

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Playwright and actor Layon Gray was casually watching television one day when he stumbled on a programme showing some black pilots — known as Tuskegee Airmen — receiving a Congressional Honour.

He was so greatly moved by the men’s energy and pride that he decided to write a play based on their experiences in 2008.

The result is ‘Black Angels Over Tuskegee’ — an uplifting story about black airmen in the Second World War.

It just completed its fourth year off-Broadway and in 2009 won an NAACP Award for best ensemble and Hollywood Artistic Director Achievement Award for best play.

The play will be performed here on February 5 and 6 by The Black Gents of Hollywood as part of a diverse line-up organised by the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts. In addition to a small role played by Mr Gray, it also features Lamman Rucker, who starred in the Tyler Perry's sitcom ‘Meet the Browns’ and the film, ‘Why Did I Get Married?’

Mr Gray said the best award of recognition he ever received was from the actual Tuskegee Airmen themselves.

He told

The Royal Gazette, he and a crew had an opportunity to show the play to the surviving airmen at the National Tuskegee Airmen Convention in Las Vegas in 2009.

It was a nerve-wracking experience and he wasn’t sure how the men would react.

“We do the show and they are sitting down with their hands crossed. At the end, when the curtain dropped, it was total silence,” he said.

“I thought I had to throw the play away, but in the rear of the stage it was this raw applause. They were in tears, their wives were in tears and we walked to shake their hands.

“This one airman gave me this big hug and he said ‘You told our story right’. All the awards it has got, nothing will ever compare to that particular moment with the Tuskegee Airmen.”

The play tells the tale of six men from diverse parts of the US, embarking on the journey to become pilots in the United States’ Army Air Forces.

Inspired by the true story of one of the airmen, Mr Gray decided to focus on the love they developed for each other.

After showing to sold-out houses in Los Angeles, the play has found a strong fan base in New York City. Mr Gray said the reaction from the public has been overwhelming and people leave with “so many good things from the play”.

“Audiences come up all the time saying ‘This play reminded me of my father or my son’ or say ‘I could really relate to what you put out in this play’.

“I have never been one to write a play that was teaching or preaching, but ‘Black Angels Over Tuskegee’, it teaches you things in a way that you don’t even know you’re being taught and that is what people really love about the play.

“It’s not only African-Americans, but all nationalities. We have every nationality coming out to see this play and they all say this same thing ‘I don’t see a black story on this stage. I see an American story about something I can relate to’. That reminds them of something they want to have in their life.”

Mr Gray started out his career as a theatre and mass communications major at the University of Louisiana. Though acting was his main focus at that time, he took on a bet from someone to write a play to go along with a song they had penned.

He ended up producing a 90-minute play and was surprised to find he could get paid to write.

Mr Gray would go to the library to get books on how to format a play; he also became engrossed in the works of August Wilson, who wrote about the issues dealt with by the African-American community.

He knew he wanted to follow a similar path and “create ways of bringing back that unique story telling of the African American tradition”.

Mr Gray said he was confident locals would enjoy the play. He said: “If you take the Tuskegee Airmen subject line and just see six men on this stage, everyone can relate to what these gentlemen have been through or are going through; the struggle of just wanting to do better and overcome all these obstacles in your way and let nothing stop you from doing that.

“I am quite sure that is what [locals] will take from this and enjoy about it the camaraderie that these six men have created together.”

Tickets, $25 for students and $65 for adults, can be purchased online at www.bdatix.bm.

Useful website: www.bermudafestival.org

Black tie affair: A strong cast of actors known as The Black Gents of Hollywood will be on Island performing Layon Gray's award winning play about black airmen in the Second World War, called Black Anges Over Tuskegee. It will be playing at City Hall on February 5 and 6.
Men in uniform: A strong cast of actors known as The Black Gents of Hollywood will be on Island performing Layon Gray's award winning play about black airmen in the Second World War, called Black Anges Over Tuskegee. It will be playing at City Hall on February 5 and 6.
Jack of all trades: Writer, director and actor Layon Gray will be bringing local audiences his award winning play about black airmen in the Second World War, called Black Anges Over Tuskegee. It will be playing on Island on February 5 and 6.
Men in uniform: A strong cast of actors known as The Black Gents of Hollywood will be on Island performing Layon Gray's award winning play about black airmen in the Second World War, called Black Anges Over Tuskegee. It will be playing at City Hall on February 5 and 6.
Men in uniform: The Black Gents of Hollywood will perform Layon Gray's award-winning play about black airmen in the Second World War, ‘Black Angels Over Tuskegee’, at City Hall on February 5 and 6.

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Published January 24, 2013 at 11:33 am (Updated January 24, 2013 at 11:32 am)

‘You told our story right’: Play about Tuskegee Airmen coming to Bermuda Festival

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