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Release: June 28, 2002

(NOTE TO BROADCASTERS: Cleage is pronounced "kleeg.")

Iowa Summer Rep 2002 hits full stride with Pearl Cleage's melodrama 'Flyin' West'

The Iowa Summer Rep 2002 festival of plays by Pearl Cleage will hit full stride with the opening of "Flyin' West," an old-fashioned frontier melodrama that was one of the most-produced American plays of the 1990s, at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 11 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The UI department of theatre arts' summer Actors' Equity company will also perform this story of African-American pioneers in Kansas at 8 p.m. July 12, 13, 19 and 20.

In "Flyin' West," which for two years in the early '90s was the most-produced play in the country, Cleage focuses on four "Exodusters"—black women in post-Civil War America who hoped to escape the racism of the South by homesteading in the Midwest.

Anthony Chase of ArtVoice called the play, "pure crowd-pleasing theatricality and soap opera... Cleage is a master of the craft of dramatic storytelling, and 'Flyin' West' is a roaring good time."

The idea for the play, which is set in the real-life utopian settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, came to Cleage from the writings of Ida B. Wells, an influential Memphis newspaper columnist who urged African-Americans to go west, rather than north, in search of greater freedom. Taking advantage of the "free" land of the Homestead Act, some 40,000 did so, particularly in the "Exodus" of 1879, creating black pioneer settlements across the frontier.

"Flyin' West" also emphasizes another under-told aspect of the Old West -- the role of independent women on the frontier. By the end of the 19th century, tens of thousands of unmarried or widowed women ran their own farms and ranches in the plains and valleys of the American West.

Cleage's characters include Miss Leah (Carol Mitchell-Leon, reprising the role she originated), a tenacious matriarch, and sisters Fannie Mae Dove (Amy Olson) and Sophie Washington (Adrienne L. Woodard), who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their newlywed sister, Minnie Dove Charles (Michaele-Nicole Cohns).

Isolation and weather are already challenges for the settlers, but when Minnie arrives from London with her husband Frank (Lex Jorge), she unwittingly introduces a threat to the sisters' land. Against the designs of interloping white speculators, the sisters unite to protect their new-found freedom.

Cleage has said, "Although 'Flyin' West' is set in the 19th century, today's women can identify with the characters because their conversations are the same ones women have today."

Director Shirley Basfield Dunlap, a former faculty member at Iowa State University, says, "Directing this script and researching the world of these characters has been rewarding. 'Flyin' West' gives new meaning to the word 'empowerment.'"

Carol Mitchell-Leon, the director of theater at Clark Atlanta University, is a noted stage, film and TV actress based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her TV appearances include the recent Hallmark production, "Mama Flora's Family," and TV mini-series "Scarlett" and "On Promised Land." Her film credits include "Getting Out" and "Fried Green Tomatoes." In addition to Miss Leah in "Flyin' West," she originated the role of May in Cleage's "Bourbon at the Border."

Michaele-Nicole Cohns is a speech communication and theatre arts major at Dillard University in New Orleans. She was last seen as Leadbelly's wife, Martha Promise, in the world premiere of "Goodnight Irene: The Legacy of Leadbelly."

Adrienne L. Woodard, who attended Iowa Wesleyan and Cal Arts, has spent the past 15 years in Los Angeles playing drums with various bands. She now plays with the Nik Strait Project and her brother's jazz band, the Fred Woodard Trio. Her most recent acting experience was in the world premiere of "Wonderchild" at the UI.

UI graduate student Amy Olson was seen most recently as Masha in the University Theatres Mainstage production of "The Seagull" and in the title role of "Electra." She can also be seen in the motion picture "Legally Blonde."

Lex Jorge is also an MFA acting student at the UI, where he recently performed in "O Pioneers!", "A Christmas Carol" and "The Making of Americans."

Shirley Basfield Dunlap comes to Iowa Summer Rep fresh from directing the story of legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter in Phoenix. She has also directed for Buffalo PBS, Madison Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Studio Arena in Buffalo, the Dallas Theater Center, the Des Moines Playhouse, Ohio's The Human Race Theatre Company, Florida's The Hippodrome State Theatre, and The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The production features lighting by UI faculty member Bryon Winn; costumes by UI graduate Kaoime E. Malloy, who is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay; and scenic design by UI alumnus Matthew York

York's recent credits include productions at the Northlight Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, the About Face Theatre, the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, Next Theatre), the Writer's Theatre, the Naked Eye Theatre and a dozen shows for Chicago's Roosevelt University as an adjunct faculty member.

Cleage, who has been playwright in residence at Spelman College and at the Just US Theater Company in Atlanta, has written plays that have been produced professionally for more than 20 years. But she was boosted to a new level of public awareness when Oprah's Book Club recommended her novel "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day" in 1997. Her most recent novel, "I Wish I Had a Red Dress," won the top fiction honor in the 2002 Literary Awards of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Inc.

The themes of Cleage's plays began to form early in her life, as the daughter of a minister and a school teacher. She recalled, "By the time I was eight or nine, I understood clearly that slavery and racism had created a complex set of circumstances that impacted daily on my life as an African-American. . . I also knew that as a person who had the advantage of growing up in a house where there were books, it was my responsibility once I achieved adulthood to work consciously to 'uplift the race,' or at least as much of it as I could, given limited resources, human frailty and the awesome implacability of the group itself."

Before dedicating her energies to writing, Cleage worked at a variety of jobs in the media, including host of a black-oriented interview program in Atlanta. In the mid-1970s, she served as director of communications for the city of Atlanta and press secretary for Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Cleage's essays have appeared in Essence, the New York Times Book Review, Ms., Atlanta Magazine, Pride, Black World, the Afro-American Review and other publications. She has been a columnist for the Atlanta Gazette, the Atlanta Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution, and she was the founding editor of Catalyst, a literary magazine.

Cleage's other books include the poetry collections "We Don't Need No Music," "Dear Dark Faces" and "One for the Brothers"; the essay collection "Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot"; the short-story collection "The Brass Bed and Other Stories"; and the non-fiction work "Dreamers and Dealmakers: An Insider's Guide to the Other Atlanta."

Tickets to the Iowa Summer Rep 2002 production of "Flyin' West" are $17 ($13 for senior citizens and $9 for UI students and youth. Tickets are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

"Flyin' West" tickets are also available at a substantial discount as part of an Iowa Summer Rep 2002 subscription. A subscription, which also includes tickets to Cleage's "Bourbon at the Border" and "Blues for an Alabama Sky," is $40 ($31 for senior citizens and $22 for UI students and youth).

Free Iowa Summer Rep 2002 brochures are available, including Cleage's bio, information about the plays, a full festival schedule and order forms for series packages. The brochures are available for pick-up at the Hancher Auditorium box office or the Theatre Building lobby, and they may be requested from either the Hancher box office or the Department of Theatre Arts, 319-335-2700.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays. The Hancher box office may be contacted by phone at 335-1160 in the local calling area or toll-free at 1-800-HANCHER, or by e-mail at < hancher-box-office@uiowa.edu >. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology. Iowa Summer Rep individual tickets will be on sale on-line at < http://www.uiowa.edu/hancher >.

Light picnic fare from the food service of the Iowa Memorial Union will be available on the Theatre Building plaza, overlooking the Iowa River, before 8 p.m. performances. The "Cotton Club Cafe" will begin serving at 6 p.m. Reservations are recommended, by calling 319-335-3105.

The department of theatre arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts. For UI arts information, visit < http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa > on the World Wide Web. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact < deborah-thumma@uiowa.edu >.

For many seasons Iowa Summer Rep has pursued a unique focus in American summer theater with its single-playwright festivals, but three seasons ago Iowa Summer Rep also became an Actor's Equity Company, elevating its status as a professional theater company. Iowa Summer Rep is made possible by the support of the University of Iowa Community Credit Union.