Layon Gray was touched as he sat in his living room watching then-President George Bush present the Medal of Honor to the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007.
“I was really moved by the event,” said Gray. “There had never been a play written about their experience and I said I wanted to write a play about it.”
The televised event spurred the Louisiana-born actor, writer and producer to put pen to paper and write “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” a play that tells the heroic story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first aviators in the U.S. Army’s Air Forces. The production movingly illustrates how the men unite in solidarity to achieve the common goal of fighting for their country.
“It happened that a Tuskegee Airmen lived right around the corner from me and he told me about his experiences. I was so moved by it that it took me five days to write the first draft,” said Gray who resides in Los Angeles.
BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE
After a couple of readings, Gray presented the show in Los Angeles and received great reviews. He soon moved on to the Big Apple with a core of California-based actors and had success there, too.
“It was selling out every day in New York. What started out as a two-week run has turned into four years off Broadway,” Gray said with pride. “People said the play wouldn’t make it because we were going up against Broadway. We did guerilla marketing in Times Square and the play just blew up.”
For one night only–September 14–New Horizon Theater, Inc. in Conjunction with Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region will be presenting “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” at the Byham Theater at 8 p.m.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of this collaboration,” said New Horizon Theater, Inc, chairperson, Joyce Meggerson-Moore. “This play is the opener of our 22nd season and it’s perfect for New Horizon because it is an historical event that actually occurred and it fits into our mission of making sure that African-Americans share their work.”
New Horizon Theater, Inc. was founded with the mission to bring to the greater Pittsburgh area consistent, high-quality cultural events, reflecting African-Americans points-of-view, and to provide an ongoing venue for ethnic writers and performers to further their professional development.
The production is part of a weekend long celebration of the Tuskegee Airmen, which will include a concert given by Josh White at the Edgeworth Country Club on Friday, the premier of “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” Saturday and the dedication of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial at the Sewickley cemetery on Sunday afternoon beginning at 2 p.m.
“We thought we could increase our audience base of people that could start coming to our plays by being a part of this collaboration,” Meggerson-Moore said.”New Horizon’s work is similar to ‘Black Angels Over Tuskegee’ because we have done numerous historical plays like ‘Nothing But the Blues’ and most recently ‘Black Pearl Sings.’
Research on the memorial began in 2009 under the auspices of the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society. The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial will honor more than 100 airmen from Western Pennsylvania. The largest number of World War II enlistees in the Tuskegee Airmen program were flight instructors, pilots, bombardiers, navigators and technically skilled flight line support personnel who hail from Western PA.
The Tuskegee Airmen stellar combat record included 15,533 Sorties,1,578 combat missions, 150 distinguished flying crosses, 744 air medals with silver and oak clusters, 14 bronze medals, and 8 purple hearts. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action and 32 were captured as prisoners of war.
“The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region, Inc. was founded to bring long overdue recognition to the Western PA Airmen through education, and community outreach and the construction of the largest outdoor Tuskegee Airmen memorial in the United States,” explained Regis D. Bobonis,Sr founder and chairman of the memorial project.
“The play isn’t just about African-American men in the army, it’s about the underdog who’s been told they can’t succeed. These men overcame the heat and beat the odds,” Gray said.”This isn’t in the history books and a lot of people don’t know about them. “This isn’t just African-American history it’s American history.”
In 2009, Gray had the great pleasure to perform “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” at the National Tuskegee Airmen Convention.
“At the end of the play there was total silence and I thought they didn’t like it. Then there was a roar of applause. Many of the men were standing on their feet and some were crying,” Gray said. “One airman came up to me and hugged me and said I did it right. We’re the only show listed on the airmen web page. They really gather around us. This means so much to have these gentlemen rallying around the play.”
‘Black Angels Over Tuskegee’ has won numerous awards including the NAACP Award.
“When I wrote this, I didn’t expect it to win any awards. I write what moves me in my spirit but it’s always great to be awarded,” Gray said.
After making its Pittsburgh debut, “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” will perform in the Virgin Islands before hopping across the pond for a limited engagement in London.
“A lot of the people in other countries have never heard of the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s a universal story,” said Gray who once came to Pittsburgh to visit the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and his friend Mark Clayton Southers.”My plays are like those written by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry but that art is dying and I have to keep it going. We need theater companies like Joyce’s to bring traditional plays to the stage and to cities where people can see them.”
In addition to viewing “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” New Horizon Theater, Inc. is offering a reception with Gray and the other actors in the production for $100. For those who just want to see the production only, tickets begin are $25, $40 and $50.
People can place their orders by emailing New Horizon Theater, Inc. at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 412-431-0773, or sending your check or money order to: New Horizon Theater, Inc. P.O. Box 40102 Pittsburgh, PA 15201. Orders can also be placed on line at www.trustarts.org or by calling 412-456-6666.
BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE