Tuskegee story comes to Guild Hall for one night

‘Black Angels’ Takes Flight

Tuskegee Airman Lee Hayes, who died in 2013, was a longtime resident of Amagansett. Black Angels Over Tuskegee tells the story of a half-dozen men of the famed 99th Pursuit. Independent/Courtesy Barry Johnson

Take flight with the Southampton African American Museum and the Eastville Community Historical Society on Thursday, August 16, as Black Angels Over Tuskegee, one of the longest-running off-Broadway productions, comes to the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton for one night.

The story of the African American World War II squadron of pilots from the 99th Pursuit, who were trained separately on their own base in Tuskegee, AL, is now the stuff of legends. Eleanor Roosevelt, while visiting Tuskegee in 1941, reportedly asked Charles Anderson, the head of the program, if “Negroes can really fly airplanes?”

In answer, Anderson took the president’s wife on a flight, over the objections of her Secret Service crew, and from that, the Tuskegee squadron became a reality.

Commonly referred to as the Tuskegee Airmen, these men came together to participate in the U.S. Army Air Corps program, which sought to train and prepare African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The group included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance, instructors and support staff personnel who were charged with keeping the planes operable and in the air.

The Tuskegee Airmen conquered isolation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II forming the 99th Pursuit Squadron. They proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen’s achievements paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.

From the press release for the show, “Black Angels Over Tuskegee enlightens and educates audiences. The narrative depicts the lives of six men who struggle through the Jim Crow era and emerge with distinction as the first African-American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces. With courageous brotherhood, their intelligence, patriotism, and strength propel a dream into flight while fighting both military and social wars.”

Direct from the Actors Temple Theater off-Broadway, this inspirational and award-winning play by Layon Gray has been awarded the 2009 NAACP Award for “Best Ensemble,” and was winner of the 2009 Artistic Achievement Award for “Best Play.” The New York Times called it, “Uplifting! Inspirational! By the end, when the pilots overcame their obstacles and finally got up into the air to the swelling of music, tears welled up in my eyes.”

“The extraordinary story of these brave men is an incredible part of not only our history but American history,” said Brenda Simmons, Executive Director of SAAM.

“So much of our history had been deleted, diluted, and misconstrued,” she continued.

Layon Gray, the playwright, says his take on the lives of the 99th Pursuit differs from others that are more about military history than connection. “Black Angels is about family, and friendship. We perform the play all around the world and all nationalities relate to the story,” he said, and then echoed Simmons. “It’s not just African American history — it’s American history.”

Doors open at Guild Hall at 5 PM with a VIP cocktail party until 6:30, honoring local Tuskegee Airmen, like Amagansett’s Lee Hayes, who died in 2013 at the age of 91. Music at the event will be provided by flautist Dwayne Kerr, known for touring with Erykah Badu, and there will be signature beverages and appetizers.

Tickets for the VIP cocktail party are $50, tickets to the show at 7 PM are $25 general admission, with a discounted rate for seniors and children. Tickets for this one-night-only event are available through www.saamuseum.org, www.guildhall.org, and www.brownpapertickets.com.