Ricardo Khan credits an accidental meeting, a picture on a wall and an amazing family connection with the inspiration to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen in "Fly," the heartwarming drama he directs at Ford's Theatre. The meeting was with his co-playwright, Trey Ellis, at a family gathering. He had not known that Ellis, a screen writer, and his brother were good friends.
The next surprise was the photo. As a co-founder of New Jersey's Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre Company, Khan was attending a meeting in Newark in the eternal quest to obtain funding when he was captivated by a photo on the wall. After learning it was of the Tuskegee Airmen, he vowed to investigate more about them and their importance in America's history and the Civil Rights movement.
During the quest that extended through years of research, he learned all their names and histories. Imagine his astonishment while attending a meeting of the members when a family friend introduced one of them, Ellwood Driver, as "your cousin."
"My mother's maiden name was Driver, but I never made the connection," Khan said. "By then, this project had been several years in development. It was fortuitous that Trey, who teaches at Columbia University, had written the screenplay for the HBO series about the Tuskegee Airmen. The Lincoln Center Institute had first approached me to write something about time travel for young people. We got the commission to write the play in the fall of 2005 and had a working script by the end of the next year. It was first produced in 2008 at Lincoln Center for children, but adults who saw it said that the story was for all ages, so I expanded it and brought it back to the Lincoln Center in 2009."
|Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW|
|When: Friday to Oct. 21|
|Info: $15 to $45; 202-426-6924; fords.org|
Khan has devoted his career to uniting performers of all races and backgrounds in a professional theatrical setting. He established Crossroads Theatre Company in old sewing machine factory in New Brunswick, N.J., and began attracting attention for the colorblind casting of his productions. The concept flourished as the community responded.
"Roscoe Brown, our main adviser, was one of the Tuskegee Airmen," Khan said. "He encouraged us to do it right and suggested that we use actual footage of film taken during World War II. The first act takes place in Tuskegee and the second in Europe, so we use the footage as the transition between the two places.
"The cast of eight includes black actors as four of the Tuskegee Airmen, three white actors representing the white airmen, and the storyteller I call the Tap Griot. He dances in a hip-hop style that allows the emotions of the airmen to come through. They had to restrict their behavior in the Army, so I needed a character to tell the story by expressing their feelings in a way that permits their anger to go into the ground and their elation into a jump for joy."