Prepare for Takeoff

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The crowd’s murmurs lulled as the sounds of planes slowly filled the Stevenson Event Center on Thursday night. After five weeks of preparation, the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) premiered “Black Eagles” to a crowd of about 150 people on opening night. As the lights in the event center shifted, the audience’s gaze focused on three men reminiscing.

Founded in 1991, AATAT is the only African American theater troupe in the UC system. AATAT was founded to provide a space for students to get involved with theater regardless of their experience. Cultural Arts and Diversity Director Don Williams said he has seen students gain the ability to express themselves on and off stage while teaching the cast members and the audience about African American culture.

“It’s a major tool for giving people a greater awareness of who they are and it gives them a greater appreciation for the culture,” Williams said. “It also jumps across the aisle and touches other folks who are not African Americans to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that about African Americans,’ because they’re given a jaded picture of [who] African Americans are.”

Williams said the organization also provides stories and knowledge that aren’t taught due to a lack of black history classes. “Black Eagles” achieves that exact goal. Written by Leslie Lee, “Black Eagles” tells the story of the first African American military pilots, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen or the Black Eagles, who were a part of the Air Force’s 99th squadron.

The play weaved scenes showing characters’ nostalgia, inner dialogue and experience during the war. While the jokes and banter shared between the pilots prompted laughter throughout the aisles, the play didn’t shy away from detailing the segregation and discrimination the Black Eagles faced both on the air force base and in the states.

During one of the more intense scenes of the play, the black pilots talked to two white pilots who believed their own success came from having more “experience.” The Black Eagles then explained that despite having an extra year of training and combat, they hadn’t been given the same recognition as their white counterparts. Fourth-year Scotty Lewis — who plays Clarkie, one of the Black Eagles — said the play evokes issues that still resonate.

“It [embraces] the struggles of being an African American male in a time when African American males weren’t accepted in the general population or in spaces where they should have been,” Lewis said. “That sentiment still holds strong today — maybe not as overtly, but it still holds strong.”

The cast and crew of “Black Eagles” rehearsed for eight to 10 hours several times a week to ensure that these stories would be told at UC Santa Cruz. First-quarter AATAT member and stage manager Raney Wilds said the lack of knowledge about the Tuskegee Airmen made it imperative for the play to reach the campus.

“You have to know about the Tuskegee Airmen or hear about them from somebody else to know what they did and know all the sacrifices they made with their friends,” Wilds said. “It’s history. Whether you’re black or white or whether you’re family was one of the airmen or not.”

After the lights switched back on, Don Williams invited audience members to learn more about the lives of the real Tuskegee Airmen through displays set up at the back of the room. Among the audience members was David Cunningham, the son of a Tuskegee Airman, who said the cast did a “fine job in portraying the attitudes of the airmen.”

The troupe will continue spreading the wings of the Black Eagles during this weekend’s performance at Monterey Peninsula College and then at Cabrillo College the following weekend. AATAT will also travel to high schools to perform for students, while also talking to them about higher education. Lewis emphasized that outreach is a major part of AATAT’s mission.

“Outreach is a really amazing thing because a lot of these students don’t really have the same level of access or resources that maybe the other students do,” Lewis said. “One reason we go on outreach is to bridge the disparities between low income students or middle class or higher income students.”

AATAT will perform “Black Eagles” at Monterey Peninsula College on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. and at Cabrillo College on March 6 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free for UCSC students with a student ID.