In for the Kill

Death be not proud: Penumbra's Black Eagles fight for freedom, justice, and a high body count

This has been a long weekend of war stories for me, between seeing Pearl Harbor on Friday and the Penumbra Theatre's production of Leslie Lee's Black Eagles on Saturday. On the home front, my television screen has been flooded with images of heroic combat for the past 60 hours. All the world seems to have become the History Channel, with its endless, near-contextless loops of Flying Fortresses hovering like some bloated birds of prey in the German skies. The planes drop their deadly payload onto rail yards and munitions factories far below, the resulting inferno seeming as distant and unreal as that little puff of smoke at the bottom of the canyon after one of Wile E. Coyote's long pratfalls. It's war, yes, but it's bloodless.

Such images flicker above the Penumbra stage prior to the start of Black Eagles, and there is something anonymous and iconic about them. This is the case even when the black-and-white newsreels show German airplanes twirling through the air with their wings cut off, their uncontrolled acrobatics interrupted only by the ground beneath them. This has been a weekend of veterans telling their stories on well-meaning television-interview shows and many of these stories have likewise been iconic and unreal and bloodless. With the Holocaust confined safely to a museum, and Norman Mailer's harrowing The Naked and the Dead faded from cultural memory, World War II narratives now can pretend that the European theater was a grand old lark, and that the Pacific theater was a rip-roaring good adventure. Lives were lost, yes, and tragically, but this was war.

Such is the tone of Leslie Lee's Black Eagles, and there is something a little unnerving for me about a play in which a group of black airmen feel they cannot truly be considered heroes until they kill somebody. The story tells of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African Americans trained by the Army Air Force for combat, and the message of the play is the same as that of Pearl Harbor and the televised tape loops. That message is: World War II was the last good war. I'm not going to argue the point, but there is a blood lust in some of this flag-waving that makes me uncomfortable, and this spirit pervades Black Eagles.

In particular, we find an unsettling eagerness for killing in the part of Nolan. As played by Anthony Irons, a muscular, wiry actor with wild eyes and a broad smile, Nolan takes his plane out of formation early on in order to spray machine-gun fire at a nearby German fighter. This is represented minimally, much as it was in the recent touring production of the air-crash documentary Victor Bravo Romeo: The actors sit, lights come on them, appropriate sound effects fill the air, and the actors start slinging noisy aviator lingo at one another. Immediately chastised for his hotheaded break with procedure, Nolan barks back that heroism is counted in German deaths, and he follows it with the rather queasy statement that he has heard that men sometimes "get erections and come" when they get their first kill.

In a similar vein, when an amiable duet of white airmen who have recently seen combat wander over to share drinks and liberal sentiments with their black comrades-in-arms, the two men (played by Sean Logan and Brent Doyle) are immediately peppered with eager questions about how it feels to kill. And the play's climax involves each of the Tuskegee Airmen stepping forward to boast of the men they shot down. "I got my kill," one says, thrilled. The men tell their stories with expressions of pleasure and relief that are positively postcoital.

It was with astonishment that I realized that Pearl Harbor, by any standard a wretched film, had built into its formulaic structure bland platitudes about the misery of war and the tragedy of lives wasted. Black Eagles offers no similar platitudes, favoring an endless appetite for blood, and a peculiar sense that in its shedding, men become equal. (That the army has been one of the strongest practitioners of equal-opportunity employment in recent decades does not quite explain this play's particular enthusiasm for the kill.) When characters point out that the Tuskegee fighter pilots repeatedly demonstrated their heroism by shepherding bombers to their targets, the airmen respond dismissively--an attitude the play seems to share. Indeed, it is only after shooting down several dozen German fighters that the men feel emboldened to demand access to the racially segregated officer's club. Historically, it was black officers at their Tuskegee base who made this stand for equality, but the playwright places the scene in Italy after a dogfight, seemingly to bolster the play's ungainly argument that the Black Eagles couldn't be true equals until they were allowed to kill.

Lee sees the Tuskegee Airmen as heroes, and, again, I wouldn't argue the point. Yet he has drawn his themes so broadly that his subjects end up sounding murderous. That's a pity, as Lee has a fine sense of character. Unlike Pearl Harbor, this play is not populated by stock types, and neither does it revolve around a preposterous love triangle. Lee has filled his play with strongly drawn, and occasionally perfectly daffy, soldiers, including an amateur ventriloquist who has heartfelt conversations with his dummy.

Indeed, the play's most affecting sequences, as directed by Lou Bellamy, are set away from the action: One airman, Buddy, played by Lamont Thompson, has taken an Italian lover, played with an appealing insouciance by the diminutive Amy Lea Colón. Thompson is a towering man with an easygoing physicality, and when he jitterbugs with his girl, he occasionally simply lifts her in the air and carries her about like a rag doll. These scenes are played with a pleasing informality, as though the best thing about the war is the leaving of it--a startling contrast to the rest of the play, in which the soldiers seem to be slowly going mad for lack of action.

This weekend has given me multiple images of soldiers who cannot wait to face death. Yet these scenes from World War II stand in striking contrast to those found in the dispatches of such wartime correspondents as Ernie Pyle, who wrote of exhausted, terrified men who had seen so much of death that they had grown clinical about the subject. Gone is the hollow-eyed, thousand-yard stare of men made half deaf and bone-weary by war, replaced by an odder, more theatrical heroism in which no act is worth mentioning unless it has a German death attached to it.

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