It's hard to imagine, in this day of commercial airplane travel, vehicles and an Interstate system, a time when traveling across the country was a major -- and often risky -- undertaking.
"Flyin' West" by Pearl Cleague, now on stage at Weathervane Playhouse through Feb. 24, gives the audience a glimpse of the pioneering era, through the eyes of four African-American women in Nicodemus, Kansas. They, like many, took advantage of the United States Homestead Act of 1860, which gave away plots of land to those willing to settle west and develop their properties. The Homestead Act, along with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery, gave many former slaves the chance to leave the still-segregated south to make their own lives out west.
"It is definitely an interesting script," said director Jennifer Kay Jeter. "It tells the story of slavery and the migration in a very conversational way. Those who moved west, it meant leaving what security you had, and living in a sod house by a river until you could cut your own timber and build your house. It must have taken a lot of pain and fear to get people to leave."
Jeter did point out one uncomfortable truth about the Homestead Act: that "the Homestead Land was taken from the Native Americans."
The story centers on two former slaves and two freeborn women who moved west. Leah (played by Pamela Morton of Twinsburg), had moved out by herself to Nicodemus years before, and served as a mentor to Sophie (played by Roslyn Henderson-Sears), and sisters Fannie and Minnie (played by Tina Thompkins and Dana Rhodes respectively), whom Sophie took under her wing after their parents were killed in a Yellow Fever epidemic when they were children. Now Leah is older and frail, and has been staying with Sophie and Fannie. Minnie had moved to England with her new husband Frank (played by Marc Jackson) but the two of them have returned to visit. Also, Wil Parish (played by Jermaine Lamar Harris), who likes Fannie, frequently visits and assists when he can.
There are two main stories. One, there have been speculators trying to buy property from the residents of Nicodemus, something Sophie strongly objects to. She has strong visions of an all-black town, where they can have their own land, their own churches and will be free to run their own lives. The other issue is more personal: it becomes clear early on that Minnie's marriage to Frank has turned abusive, and the others have to decide how far they will go to protect her.
Jeter said that this type of scenario, where unrelated people band together to assist each other and others going west solo like Leah had done, would not have been uncommon.
"It wasn't like there were families going because the families had fallen apart, either due to slavery or the Yellow Fever epidemic at that time," Jeter said.
Jetter said that she had the cast "had fun with the research."
"For one rehearsal, I brought in tobacco and china, like it would have been made then," she said. "The oval pictures [on stage] are from my family, from back in that time period. There's a crazy quilt that came from my aunt that came from around that time. Jasen [Smith] did a fabulous job with the costumes."
Harris, who plays Wil, said that this was his first stage show, other than school productions.
"I've always been a drawer," Harris said. "I acted in middle school. I am lucky to be blessed with this play. It's very deep but everyone still had fun with it."
Harris said he had relatives in his family that were in the Migration.
"My family was born in Macon, Ga., but they moved north to Ohio," Harris said. "They wanted to move away from all the drama in the Jim Crow south."
Morton said that being part of the production was "like we became an actual family." She added that it made her think of the difficulties someone like her character would have faced in moving.
"Miss Lean went by herself," Morton said. "That must have taken a lot of strength. She was a former slave who had 15 children, and she lost all of them, either due to slavery or to Yellow Fever. She had to be so much stronger than anyone is now. We have a lot of comforts and laws that protect us, and there was nothing back then."
Thompkins, who played Fannie, said the play is "very informative."
"A lot of people don't know about this part of our culture," Thompkins said. "I knew there were all-black towns but I didn't know how they came about."
Thompkins said that today, the town of Nicodemus "is a huge national park site, and there are people from the original Homesteaders there, and they are still farmers."
Today, according the National Park Service, it is the oldest and only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi River.
Mary Sue Watson of Akron, who attended the opening night show Feb. 8, said her grandfather had moved to Nebraska under the Homestead Act.
"He hated it," she said. "He moved back to Ohio after two years. I have pictures, and there is such a contrast between the rolling hills of southern Ohio, and the flat, treeless dustbin that he moved to. I have pictures of the mud hut he lived in."
Ticket and show information
Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $21 each. There are $19 tickets available for seniors Thursday and Sunday performances. Tickets for children (ages 17 or younger) and college students are $5 each at all performances. Additional discounts for groups of 12 or larger are also available.
The Weathervane Playhouse box office is open Mondays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and is also open beginning one hour before each performance. For tickets, visit or call the Weathervane Box Office at 330-836-2626 during box office hours or visit www.weathervaneplayhouse.com.
Weathervane Playhouse is at 1301 Weathervane Lane in Akron.
Next on stage
Weathervane will next produce "Charley's Aunt" by Brandon Thomas. The theater also will stage "Our Town" by Thorton Wilder as a part of its Young Actor Series.