Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's Flyin' West Tells a Surprising Story with History Behind It

Black settlers in 19th-century Kansas struggle for land and freedom in Pearl Cleage's play.

By Kay Kipling January 10, 2023

Renata Eastlick, Michael Knowles and Ariel Blue in WBTT's Flyin' West. 

The arrival of Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has been delayed for some time, due to the pandemic, but her play about a group of female, Black settlers in a Kansas town more than a century ago has at last landed. And it’s an interesting, well-acted drama with comedic tones that may prove enlightening for many viewers.

That’s because, while the characters of Flyin’ West are fictional, there is real history to that town, Nicodemus. A small, all-Black town that offered land and escape from the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South of the 1890s, Nicodemus must have seemed like a paradise to those willing to work hard to enjoy freedom there.

In Cleage’s play, she highlights especially four women, three of whom consider themselves sisters. There’s Sophie (Renata Eastlick), tough and determined to keep her own property, and the town itself, out of the hands of white speculators. There’s Fannie (Ariel Blue), a gentler sort with a romantic yearning met by Wil Parish (Michael Knowles), himself a runaway slave who headed first to Florida and then to Mexico. There’s Miss Leah (Sieglinda Fox), the elder of this clan, whose tales of life on a plantation can elicit both laughter and tears.

And then there’s youngster sister Minnie (Carmi Harris), who’s been away living in London with her mulatto husband, Frank (Donovan Whitney). Frank is awaiting a hoped-for inheritance from his late father, but his illegitimacy and scorn for those of darker skin tone than his have infected him with a poison ruining his marriage—especially once he decides Minnie should sell her share of the women’s land.

Ariel Blue and Donovan Whitney in Flyin' West.

That’s the setup for Flyin’ West, which Cleage, and director Chuck Smith let unfold gradually at first, in the setting of the women’s pioneer home, a comfortable, simple place (designed by Donna and Mark Buckalter). Initially, we are just drawn into their world, getting to know the women’s strengths and weaknesses. But things escalate with the arrival of Frank and Minnie, and some crucial decisions are made that will affect everyone’s futures.

Smith gets good work from his small cast, especially Eastlick, as the fiery Sophie, quick with a shotgun, and Fox as Miss Leah; she engages the audience fully and immediately with her words and presence, making her more heartbreaking revelations come to vivid life. Harris seems more tentative as Minnie, although that may be just the role itself, as her character is meeker and milder than the rest. Blue and Knowles make for an appealing couple just stepping into love. And Whitney is all too convincing in a part that almost calls out for boos and hisses from the audience for his perceived villainy.

Flyin’ West tells just one small story out of many untold ones related to African-Americans’ roles in the settling of the West, but it should hold your attention and perhaps prompt some after-show research. The production continues through Feb. 12; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or visit  

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