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Playhouse debuts a play about Bessie Coleman, first Black woman to hold a pilot’s license

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

You’ve probably never heard of Bessie Coleman, a stunt aviator during the early years of flight. But Coleman is an inspirational historical figure in that she was the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license, and also the first Native American of either gender to accomplish the same feat. Coleman’s story is full of firsts, as well as examples of her tenacity in overcoming obstacles as challenging as the stunts and acts of derring-do that made her famous in her day. 

Actress and storyteller April Armstrong brings this remarkable woman to life for audiences in her solo show, “Two Wings to Heaven,” presented at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse from August 3 to 13, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 pm.

Over the years, Armstrong has appeared in three productions at the Playhouse, including as the star of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a solo play with music about Billie Holiday. In that show, the accomplished actress did a stellar job of recreating — in song and monologue — the life of a well-known figure from history. This time around, Armstrong focuses on a more obscure woman of color with a very different skill set. 

“I’m interested in getting the word out about her,” says Armstrong. “When I was in school, we didn’t learn about Black history. That’s changing, but it’s still lacking.”

In a recent interview, Armstrong spoke about how kids aren’t taught about what Blacks and iIndigenous people were doing during the days of WWI and other periods in history. By giving us a glimpse of the trials of one very exceptional woman, she hopes to inspire people to overcome obstacles in their own lives. 

“As an actress, I always want to play inspiring people — characters that affect people, that move people, that make them think,” says Armstrong. “As a storyteller, I’m more interested in connections, in seeing the shared humanity and how our stories interweave.”

Coleman was born into a family of sharecroppers in Texas in 1892. Her father was African American and Cherokee. Her mother was African American. Despite a life of hardship, Coleman was able to use her intelligence and drive to further her education, attending a secondary school on a scholarship, and then completing one year of college before her money ran out. Eventually settling in Chicago, Coleman developed a passionate interest in the new field of aeronautics. She dreamed of becoming a pilot, but American flight schools did not accept women or Black people at that time. So Coleman raised the money to attend flight school in France, and then took private lessons from a French ace pilot and received additional training from a pilot with the renowned Fokker Corp. in Germany. 

All of these efforts were made to prepare Coleman for a career as a stunt flier — the one way to make money as a pilot at that time. Following the barnstorming circuit, the young aviatrix, billed as “Queen Bess,” became a highly popular draw, and earned the distinction of being “the world’s greatest woman flier.” 

For the show, Armstrong, wearing an authentic WWI bomber jacket and leather helmet, tells of the amazing fortitude, bravery, and talent of her subject. The multitalented actress also intersperses music throughout the show, performing, variously, bits of hymns, songs of the era, and a couple of original compositions. 

One of the things that most impressed Armstrong was Coleman’s ability to garner support through her ambition and her winning personality

“There was a magnetism that she had,” says the actress. “She had to be wholly committed and then convince other people of her ability. She utilized her magnetism and her innate skills. There was something spectacular about her brain that enabled her to maneuver those planes.” 

This is just one facet of the woman that fascinates Armstrong. She has spent time exploring what motivated Coleman to pursue such a singular, male-dominated profession. 

“There’s something very special about a person who wants to do something dangerous,” she says. “You don’t just do it because you’re compulsive. You have to have a real drive to go through all the training, and focus everything on your goal.”

Armstrong herself has followed her passion and taken many risks throughout her lengthy career. She has taken part in Broadway national tours of “Ragtime” and “Carousel,” been among the cast of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions multiple times, and performed at other theaters in New York City and elsewhere. 

In 2000, Armstrong launched a second career as a storyteller, performing at venues and festivals around the world, and earning the National Storyteller Network’s JJ Reneaux Emerging Artists Award last year. 

“Two Wings to Heaven” was originally created as more of a storytelling and teaching tool before Armstrong decided to reconfigure it as a theatrical event. The show was originally slated for 10 performances last November at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla. Those shows had to be postponed because of hurricane cancellations but, luckily, with all of the moving pieces already in place, Armstrong approached the M.V. Playhouse’s artistic director, MJ Bruder Munafo, in 2020 about a run here. Bruder Munafo responded enthusiastically and, after a postponement from an earlier date, the show is prepared at last for flight. 

Armstrong is thankful to Bruder Munafo and the Playhouse staff for giving her the opportunity to present the show to a public audience for the first time, and with helping with the staging and other aspects of the production. “It’s really special for an actor to have these homes to bring their work to,” she says. “You’ve got talented people who are coming together. It’s rare that someone does something like this all by themselves. It’s a team effort.”

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