The People Could Fly and Other Tales of Freedom

Chicago playwright and director premieres musical at the Beverly Arts Center

Near Natchez, Mississippi there is a small grove called “The Devil’s Punchbowl.” There, peach trees grow heavy with fruit that remains uneaten, made unpalatable, supposedly, by the knowledge of what happened there right after the Civil War. 

The story, reinforced by a few local papers and historians and adapted in a new musical The People Could Fly and Other Tales of Freedom by Carla Stillwell, tells of “concentration camps” set up in this grove where formerly enslaved people were forcibly kept until they expired from starvation and malnourishment. They were buried, so the story goes, where they dropped, their bodies fertilizing the ground for the peach trees that now overrun “The Devil’s Punchbowl.”

Stillwell, a director and playwright whose play Bodies won a Black Theater Alliance Award for Best Play, and composer Shawn Wallace (who has worked with Common, Ice Cube, Erykah Badu, and others) paired up for this musical, which combines the “Devil’s Punchbowl” lore with an African-American folktale. The musical premiered Friday and Saturday at the Beverly Arts Center this past weekend, and, while Stillwell did concede that there are plans to put the musical on again at some point, she was not able to say where and when quite yet.

The People Could Fly has quite a small cast for a musical—six—and correspondingly the orchestra section, at least this weekend, was left out in favor of a single keyboard. Nonetheless, through dynamic staging that kept the actors moving across the stage, and courtesy of the strong voices Stillwell and Wallace found for the oldest characters, the production was more brash than sparse. Quinton Guyton, who played Toby, and Deanna Reed-Foster, who played Misses, were especially wonderful, their powerful voices amplified in the small space of the BAC.

The second story that went into the script—the part that involved people flying—is a popular African-American folktale. As Stillwell adapted it, it begins with a young woman named Sarah who, after giving birth the previous day, is forced to work in the fields with her day-old baby on her back. Unable to feed or hold the child while she works, Sarah sings to keep the infant from crying. However, as the day wears on, the child begins to cry louder and louder. The overseer comes over and orders her to quiet the child. She tries, but to no avail, and the overseer brings his whip down upon her back, and consequently on the day-old baby. Near her in the field, an older man named Toby sees what happens and takes her aside. He tells her that he knows an old secret: he can fly, and she can too. Toby begins to sing in Yoruba, a Nigerian language, and after teaching Sarah, he turns to the rest of the enslaved workers and urges all of them to sing, to sing and fly, far away from that plantation.

In Stillwell’s version, Toby and the others fly all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving safely back in Africa. In the version popularized by Virginia Hamilton in her book The People Could Fly, Toby sacrifices himself to allow the others to escape. Stillwell’s musical version takes out this tragic note, turning the scene where the workers fly off the plantation into one of the most rousing and exuberant numbers in the production. All the voices on stage meld into a mellifluous yet pounding ballad—even for those in the audience who didn’t understand Yoruba, the meaning was not diminished in the least.

Yet, despite this change in the play adaptation, The People Could Fly does not make light of the situations and issues it confronts. At the end of the show Stillwell did not allow the actors to come out and take a bow;  she said that she finds the practice akin to saying “thank you everybody, none of this is real,” and asserted that “it seems distasteful.” Yes, the actors are acting, but, as Stillwell noted in a Q&A session after the premiere (many of the questions were asked by small children), the musical makes unabashed use of the vagaries of storytelling, staking its ground not on the  literal truth, but on the metaphorical and the creative truth.

The People Could Fly and Other Tales of Freedom is quite short; the play clocks in at around thirty-five minutes, mirroring the mere six weeks it took Stillwell and Wallace to churn out the script, music, and lyrics. But for a musical—especially one aimed at all ages—it is surprisingly affecting. Regardless of whether or not the peach trees at “The Devil’s Punchbowl” actually rest on a mass grave, and whether or not people can actually fly, Stillwell and Wallace’s production is quite real—as are the issues it depicts.

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