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Tuskegee Airmen NY Play Coming to a Stage at Cheyney University

November 12, 2013

Layon Gray brings his New York play Black Angels Over Tuskegee to Cheyney University Monday, November 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm on Marian Anderson Music Center's stage.  Tickets are available for purchase by the outside public.  The show is free for veterans of the armed services--with ID.

Layon Gray brings his New York play Black Angels Over Tuskegee to Cheyney University Monday, November 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm on Marian Anderson Music Center's stage. Tickets are available for purchase by the outside public. The show is free for veterans of the armed services--with ID.

When writer/director/actor Layon Gray brings his Black Angels Over Tuskegee play to Cheyney University's Marian Anderson Auditorium stage Monday, November 18 at 7:30 pm, the audience will learn of the powerful bond between seven Tuskegee Airmen who fought incredible odds to become recognized aviators in the U.S. and around the world.  The poignant story "isn't in textbooks," Gray acknowledges.  "And a lot of people, especially African American students, don't know about their incredible story and how they went on to do wonderful things and these are men who look just like them," he enthuses.

In 2007, Gray watched President George W. Bush on television give surviving Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medals, the most prestigious honor that Congress bestows.  The medals came six decades after they finished their WWII mission and came home to a country that still discriminated against them because of the color of their skin.  President Bush saluted them and said he hoped it helped "atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgiveable indignities" they endured.

Gray was touched.  "I was so moved by these incredible men who were in their 80s and 90s and still full of energy," he recalls.  He decided then to research their story and write a play--not about the facts and the history--that had already been done in a movie.  He wanted to tell their personal stories about the brotherhood that they created, the fun that they had, and how they always had each other's backs.  So he met with the real survivors, got to know them and their stories and in 2008, he wrote Black Angels of Tuskegee.  The first audience to see it was the Tuskegee Airmen at their National Convention in Las Vegas, NV.  

"At the end of the show the curtain closed and there was total silence," he says, and he immediately assumed that no one liked it.  "And then, the curtains rose and I saw that all of the airmen were standing on their feet and that they and their wives were just crying and sobbing.  And then, the entire place erupted in a roar of applause and they came up to me and said, "Layon, you told our story right. Someone finally told our story right." I'll never forget that night or that feeling as long as I live. Nothing will ever top that moment. "They truly, truly loved the play."

That play chronicles the experiences of six black men training under a white Flight Commander.  A character named Man narrates the play.   They are several of the hundreds of fighter pilots who were trained as a segregated unit after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that blacks be allowed to fly, despite studies that showed that African Americans' brains weren't big enough to process the information necessary to fly a plane.  "The Tuskegee project was supposed to be an experiment," Gray explains. "Everyone expected it to fail--not succeed."

According to Gray, everybody can relate to his play.  "It doesn't matter what nationality you are. Everybody can relate to what these gentlemen went through to succeed and prove people wrong." In fact, in a sense, Gray believes his play carries on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen because, although his first show was in Vegas, Gray really began production in Los Angeles.  Despite many who thought his play could not succeed in New York, Gray took it there and Black Angels Over Tuskegee is getting ready to go into its fifth year in New York city.

"The show is selling out every weekend," Gray remarks. "We just came back from touring the play in the Virgin Islands and we will soon do the same in Bermuda, so the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is continuing even through this play and its success."

Cheyney University will host the play this Monday as part of the Fall 2013 Arts & Lectures Series. The show is free for all Cheyney students, faculty and staff as well as veterans of the armed services--with ID.  The public can purchase tickets for the show at cheyney.ticketleap.com/layon-grays-black-angels-over-tuskegee/.