Congratulations, Ricardo Khan! Your play Fly, about the Tuskegee Airmen, won three big awards at the Feb. 26 NAACP Theatre Awards – including best production.
Fly, which was up for eight nominations, tells the tale of four airmen and their training. Told in flashbacks in the memory of one airman on the day of the first Obama inauguration in 2009, Fly infuses its story with elements of tap-dance and hip-hop, along with projected images from history, to resonate across generations. Although not a musical, it uses the character of the Tap Griot, a leader-guru, to help tell the tale in rhythm. And Khan has kept the production team together for the various incarnations of Fly. (Hope C. Clarke won for choreography, and it also won for lighting.)
Khan spent much of his childhood in Camden. The Khan family also had sojourns in Norristown, North Philly, and Cherry Hill, but it’s quite the celebrated family in Camden. Ricardo is the son of Mustapha Khan, the family doctor for whom Mustapha Khan Way in Camden is named. His brother Micah is director of operations of the social-service organization The Nehemiah Group, and another brother is educator and pastor Rev. Amir Khan.
It has been a long flight for Fly, co-written with Trey Ellis, with many stops along the way. Khan had long been fascinated by the story of the airmen, and he had studied several of their lives throughout his life. “The show itself began in 2005 as a 50-minute show for kids and adults at the Lincoln Center Institute,” he says, calling from Hoboken, N.J. Rewritten, beefed up, revised, it debuted in 2009 at the Crossroads Theatre (which Khan cofounded in 1978) in New Brunswick, N.J., and played regionally. Finally, a 2016 co-production at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and the Crossroads brought the play into its maturity.
In expanding on Fly, Khan got to meet many well-placed people who shared his fascination with in the topic. They included retired Gen. Colin Powell and former president George H.W. Bush. “It was fascinating to learn about Bush’s intense interest in the Airmen,” Khan says, “because he also had been a pilot in World War Two.”
Khan also became close with several of the surviving airmen. “Our guiding light has been Roscoe C. Brown,” he says, alluding to the former airman who earned a doctorate after the war and soon became a university professor and advocate for the airmen and for veterans’ and civil rights. “He came up to me after one performance and told me, ‘Look, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to do it right!’ He visited all our rehearsals, part of which were lessons in how to fly, which we took in our chairs.” Brown even visited rehearsals for the 2016 production, shortly before his death.
Khan found out he had personal ties to some of the airmen. George Bolden was a family friend in Camden. Khan even found out he was related to a personal hero: Tuskegee Airman Elwood T. “Woody” Driver. It was Brown who told Khan that Driver was his cousin. “So I said to my mother, ‘Mom, you’re not going to believe this,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that’s Woody.’ ”
Trailer for a 2015 production of Fly at the Florida Studio Theatre.
The award-winning production debuted at the Pasadena Playhouse in January 2016, did an off-Broadway run at the New Victory Theatre in New York, and completed its journey at the Crossroads. Why did the 2016 production jell? Khan says, “That the first Obama inauguration in 2009, at which the Tuskegee Airmen were invited guests, prompted a surge of renewed energy.” Fly now begins and ends with the Obama inauguration.
So it has been a grand flight for a boyhood fascination that has turned into an award-winning play. “Sometimes you have grant support for a production, and a lot of the time you don’t,” Khan says. “Most of the time, you have yourself and your commitment to the story you’re telling.”