Playwright and actor Beryl Bain alongside the new artistic director of b current, Marcel Stewart, would both agree. In collaboration with b current Performing Arts, Bain will present her first written play and solo performance about Black pilot Bessie Coleman in The Flight. Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to hold an international pilot’s license.
Finding familiarity and relatability in Coleman’s story unexpectedly drew her in. The pilot’s prolific yet unfortunately short life reflects more than someone who accomplished extraordinary feats in her time. However, what stands out to both is how Coleman persevered and marched forward to the beat of her own drum. Similarly, so do Bain and Stewart.
While reading Promised The Moon about astronauts who started as pilots and their story in aviation, she fell upon the tenacity and resoluteness of Coleman. While it’s difficult for Bain to put her finger on why she chose Coleman out of all the history-making heroines we have yet to hear about, her explanation is understandable: relatability.
“She popped up in an environment where I wasn't expecting her, which was really interesting. It's hard always to explain exactly why certain things appeal to you, right? There are many stories of pioneering and fascinating, and complex people.
Why this person? There is something about her that I find both relatable and challenging. So both of those things are at play for me simultaneously. So, it's like an ‘I chose her as she chose me’ kind of thing, where it's like, all right, let's get to it,” says Bain.
On January 26, on what would have been Coleman's birthday, Mattel launched a Barbie doll celebrating her legacy and achievements in STEM programming and aeronautics. She was a pioneer who did things unapologetically her way. Stewart believes that that caveat makes her even more inspiring.
“There's a line that Beryl says as Bessie, ‘I'm not afraid of death.’ This idea is that we're all going to leave this astral plane of Earth at some point, and we only have a finite amount of time here. So why not live life to its absolute fullest? Take all the risks, make mistakes, and fail. Just get messy and dirty to figure out where I want to go, what I want to be, what I want to do, and what I can achieve. I get that from this woman. This woman who came from a sharecropping foundation in Texas to making her own way to Chicago and being a manicurist and kind of hustling, you know what I mean?” says Stewart.
Bain was thoroughly impressed with Coleman’s grit and persistence too. “One of the things that struck me was that she's not that political. She was somewhat involved politically in her life. But generally speaking, what strikes me the most about her is how she just did everything she could to fulfill her potential and didn't let anything get in her way. So she wasn't actually looking to break barriers from a political standpoint as much as she was looking to break barriers as my interpretation of her from a personal standpoint, she just literally said, ‘look, I can do this.’”
And that’s the energy Bain is running with for her first solo show. She’s grabbing the bull by the horns, fully embracing the challenge. Bain works in the mindset of ‘if you believe it, you can achieve it.’ That concept has proven positive for her in her career. When discussions came about for b current to be a part of the project, Stewart wondered if he was the one in place to bring everything to light. However, he released that energy and moved forward full throttle.
“This thing I go back to is, don't be afraid of death. I was like; I'm a man. What am I going to do directly telling this story? What access do I have to this? This is my own insecurities that were showing themselves. So I went to Google and Wikipedia to find out who Bessie Coleman was. I'd always been intrigued by one-person shows. There's something about being yourself, the vulnerability. And to be like, ‘yo, I'm gonna take you on this journey for an hour or however long. Come on for the ride.’ I was really interested in that.”
Bain’s acclaimed theatre accomplishments already run long, as does Stewart’s. Both travelled the known path to theatre via schooling, accolades, and performances. But they’re also venturing on a course where they invite and welcome the challenge in the art of storytelling. In doing so, it exposes them to many of life’s verticals—including one’s purpose.
We’re aware of how Coleman lived in hers unapologetically. So I was intrigued and asked the two thespians, at this point in their life, ‘what their purpose was.’ Bain revealed, “I've been asked, and I've never been able to answer that question (laughs). I think I'm here to move people emotionally. I think I can, not just through the arts but in other facets of my life, too, help people express their feelings. I'm thinking about it, and that seems to be a theme, you know? If I can express myself emotionally and be truthful about my experience, I think that is a service.”
On the other side of the coin, Stewart rounded off our discussion with his fearless disposition, standing in his truth, saying, “I aspire for a level of groundedness in my everyday life. That is my purpose, to try and find that. Every day I get towards a level of groundedness where I don't ever apologize for anything I do. I'm also mindful of how I show up in the world and the relationships I cultivate. But again, it's not about apologizing. For me, it's not about saying sorry for the person I am; it's about standing true to that.”
You can catch The Flight by Beryl Bain at Factory Theatre from Friday, February 10 to Saturday, February 18.