“Black Angels Over Tuskegee”
7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun.
Stage Door Canteen, National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St.
$65 for dinner/brunch and show; call 504-528-1943 or visit the ticket link
Back when he was in his 30s, Alexandria native Layon Gray was channel-surfing on the couch of his Los Angeles home in 2007 when the actor and playwright ran across a C-SPAN airing of the aging Tuskegee Airmen receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush.
“Wow,” he recalled thinking, “this is incredible!”
As an African-American actor struggling to find roles that spoke to his culture, Gray (now in his early 40s) became inspired to create a stage drama telling the story of the black aviators who overcame prejudice to become a vital part of the United States’ air campaign during World War II. After years of research, Gray developed “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” a hour show that will enjoy a weekend run at The National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen.
Debuting in Los Angeles in 2009 before a jump to off-Broadway in 2010, the show follows the story of six aviators who join the U.S. Air Force during both World War II and the height of the Jim Crow era of segregation.
Gray is quick to point out that this came at a time when mainstream America accepted research that suggested blacks were inherently inferior to whites — especially in terms of intellectual capacity. Basing his narrative on research but also interviews with several surviving airman, Gray hopes to present a story that not only inspires in showing how the airmen overcame these odds, but also the bonds they built while serving their country.
“When I interviewed one of the veterans, he didn’t talk about the medals he’d won but the friendships he made behind closed doors,” said Gray, who graduated from what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “I wanted to find a story that was organic and from the heart. We do this show for kids a lot, and I always stress that we as African Americans have no reason not to succeed. This was at a time when they were considered less than men.
“If they could take all that and still fight for their country, then we have no reason not to succeed today,” Gray continued. “I want to tell young men that everyone should be accountable for themselves and be responsible for their own success.”