“We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
So wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in September 1942 for her nationally syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” pushing the need for women to have their chance at contributing to the United States’ effort in World War II. Less than a year later, the Women Airforce Service Program was established.
“The WASPs served as test pilots, as target practice for soldiers being trained on anti-aircraft guns and they trained pilots how to dogfight,” says playwright Shelia Cowley, author of the play “Flying.” Cowley’s script tells the story of WASPs returning home after the war to get “back to normal,” at a time when normal for women meant taking a back seat to men.
She adds, “The play explores the aftermath of war and the quiet, daily acts of heroism that never earn a medal.”
The story “Flying”tells is fictional but is drawn from oral histories and memoirs of actual women who flew military planes in the WASP program during World War II so that male pilots could go fight.
Developed through the Chicago Dramatists Script Lab, “Flying”premiered at The Tampa Repertory Theatre in 2017 and has had Equity productions in upstate New York, Tampa and Salt Lake City. As the shutdown of in-person theatre drags on, the show is returning, in a way, to where it all began. Tampa Rep is remounting the drama virtually, live on August 16 at 3 p.m. and available to stream through August 20 on a pay-what-you-can-basis.
As theatre companies seek out new methods of bringing productions to life in these socially distant times, Tampa Rep’s new artistic director Emilia Sargent reached out to Cowley a couple months ago and asked if she’d be interested in re-creating the 2017 production on Zoom. Cowley was interested, but wanted her play about one historical moment to speak to our current one.
“I said I’d only want to do a Zoom performance if we took advantage of that format to do something no other theatre has tried – and cast it completely with actors of color,” Cowley says. “Tampa Rep embraced that, and Emilia knows Peter from his work at American Stage, so she asked if he’d direct.”
“Peter” is L. Peter Callender, artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco but, like much of the cast, has worked around Tampa Bay as an actor and director of critically acclaimed productions at American stage like “A Raisin in The Sun,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “Jitney.”
“I always knew the play would work with actors of any ethnicity,” says Cowley. “Every other play I’ve written welcomes diverse casting, often in gender and age – and I didn’t want ‘Flying’to be any different. I saw the read-through and it’s going to be terrific – the actors and director are outstanding and it’s a very human story that hits home today with veterans and working women.”
Details about the performance, including how to watch, here.