A catch-up with the writing team from Festival 2008 show Barnstormer, Douglas J. Cohen and Cheryl K. Davis. The show was one of our first National Fund for New Musicals Production Grant Recipients in 2009.
Before Amelia Earhart, there was Bessie Coleman—the first Black aviatrix who rose from the cotton fields of Texas and the barbershops of Chicago to finally conquer the skies of France. Her brief but dynamic life inspired the disenfranchised to pursue their dreams, including her own nephew who became a Tuskegee Airman.After the Festival, you headed down to Red Mountain Theatre Co. (RMTC) for your first production. What was it like being down in Alabama for the show?
It was thrilling being in such an historic city. We had the chance to tour that city’s wonderful Civil Rights Institute. One of the last surviving major civil rights leader from the 50’s and 60’s, Reverend Shuttleworth, later attended a performance of Barnstormer.Our theater was only about four blocks away from the 16th Street Baptist church that was bombed in 1963, tragically killing four girls. An additional two blocks away was the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Artistic Director Keith Cromwell was kind enough to put us up during the production. He and his staff couldn’t have been more welcoming.
What did you learn about the show on its feet?
We wrote two new songs going into the production. When one of them didn’t comfortably fit our lead’s voice, we ended up rewriting the lyrics to “Grounded” and moving that song to a new spot in the show. We also had written a great deal of narrative for adult Arthur (Bessie’s nephew) but realized it wasn’t dramatic having him continually address the audience. Much of this new text was jettisoned, and ended up only using Arthur to bookend the piece. We also cut a song near and dear to our hearts that was sung by Bessie’s mother and sister-in-law at her funeral […] but we may have too been hasty cutting the elegy as it gave the audience a chance to mourn Bessie and understand the personal loss her family experienced.
While there, you actually created a couple of different versions of the show for RMTC’s use. What was it like cutting down the show (again) and presenting the different versions?
We created both a shortened version of the show for presentation to student audiences, and a one-woman version of the show for school touring purposes. We tried to use the process of creating these versions to re-focus and clarify Bessie’s through-line in the piece as a whole.
What changes were made after RMTC?
We didn’t have another chance to work on Barnstormer until Artistic Director/Producer Sheila Kay Davis optioned our musical for Off Broadway’s New Professional Theatre. We took this opportunity to implement a major change and introduce a love interest for Bessie. There isn’t much known about her personal life, but she was briefly married and did have some interests aside from aviation. We believe that revealing additional passions has humanized her. We wrote a new number for the couple, as well as a number in a Paris nightclub to open Act Two. It always seemed strange that Bessie travels all the way to France to learn how to fly, yet we barely introduced her and our audience to the celebrated Parisian culture. [Our director] felt strongly about hiring an integrated cast; previously Barnstormer had only been presented with an all African American cast. At the height of her career, Bessie would only fly at integrated airshows, so it made sense to incorporate white actors and characters into our show; this also helps us illustrate racial conflict more directly in earlier scenes. Lastly, we revisited the opening containing “Cotton and the Clouds," and we believe the number at last 'takes flight' within the context of the show.
After this recent reading, what is on the horizon for Barnstormer?
The reading was very successful, and now Sheila is meeting with corporations, foundations, and individuals to help us bring our show to Off Broadway. She is also discussing it seriously with two respected regional theaters who have expressed interest in presenting Barnstormer prior to a New York engagement.