Layon Gray chanced upon a televised event in 2007 that changed the course of his career. The actor, writer and director watched President George W. Bush award the Congressional Gold Medal to the African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen and was so moved he decided to write a play about them.
Hearing his plan, a friend told Mr. Gray that a former airmen was living around the corner from the writer's Los Angeles home. The neighbor shared his stories, and "Black Angels Over Tuskegee" began to take off. The play, which includes some song-and-dance routines, is based on stories told by the real-life airmen, pioneers who overcame bigotry and Jim Crow oppression to form the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps.
"We can go online and find out about what planes they shot down and the medals they eventually got, but no one really knows what went on behind closed doors, and that's the angle I wanted to tell -- what they gave up to go and fight for a country that at the time pretty much said they weren't smart enough, said the African-American brain was small and they wouldn't be capable of flying a plane. [The Tuskegee Airmen] proved everybody wrong," Mr. Gray said.
During its successful run in Los Angeles, Clifford Lee Johnson III of Backstage.com wrote, "Some plays teach, others celebrate, and a few simply entertain. 'Black Angels Over Tuskegee' manages to do all three and one thing more: It inspires."
"Then one day, it was like, let's try to put it up in New York," Mr. Gray said by phone on Monday. "But you know, New York, it's very expensive to do theater. We were able to raise enough money to do two weeks only. So we did the two weeks, and every night sold out. And now those two weeks have turned into four years."
The play, with Mr. Gray in the cast from the start, has traveled to various venues during those four years, and last year, the playwright came to visit the August Wilson Center and other potential sites for "Black Angels." He knew of efforts to build the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region in Sewickley Cemetery, honoring eight members of that community, and then he received a call from Joyce Meggerson-Moore of Pittsburgh's New Horizon Theater. She wanted him to direct a local company in the play.
"I was like, we've got the show running in New York. It might be easier to just bring this group down and do the show," Mr. Gray recalled. "She said that was a great idea and partnered up with the guys at the memorial, and they made it happen."
"Black Angels Over Tuskegee" will be absent from its regular Saturday night, off-Broadway gig this weekend when it instead plays the Byham Theater. On Sunday, the cast will be present as the memorial will be unveiled in Sewickley.
The play gained traction after that successful opening in New York's St. Luke's Theatre. The theater was already booked beyond the original run, so "Black Angels" moved over a block to Actors Temple Theatre on West 47th Street, which these days serves as a hub when the cast is not on the road. Upcoming sites include London and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Although the show focuses on the experiences of black pilots and how they maintain their spirit and patriotism in the face of prejudice, Mr. Gray said it travels well because of its universal appeal. "It's not just African-American history, it's American history. All nationalities can relate to the underdog and what these six gentlemen are going through," he said.
Memorable past performances have been booked by the New York Jets, first in 2010 and then last month. "The coaches see this as a motivational play, a play about brotherhood, about having each other's backs," Mr. Gray said. "And the Brooklyn Nets have signed on to come."
When it was suggested that perhaps the struggling Steelers could use a little of that uplift, he said, "The Steelers have always been my favorite team. When we were little, my father got all of us, my cousins, uniforms, and I got the Steelers. I was always Franco Harris. ... I've been a fan through thick and thin."
For New Horizon Theater, bringing "Black Angels" to Pittsburgh had just one drawback -- that the cast's scheduling allowed for one night rather than multiple showings. Ms. Meggerson-Moore was harried while speaking by phone Tuesday from a spot on Thomas Boulevard in the East End, where sets were being built that would have to be hauled Downtown to the Byham. But her mood remained buoyant as she looked toward Saturday.
"We are ecstatic to make this happen. This fits right into our mission of performing plays with an African-American point of view, and the fact that it's a true story makes it even better," she said of the company's season-opening production. "We are just happy to have them here in the city, and we want the city to give them a great reception."
After "Black Angels Over Tuskegee" opened in Los Angeles in 2009, the company was awarded the NAACP Award for best ensemble. That same year, the show played for an audience that its creator expected to be his toughest critics.
"The first time we ever did it in front of the airmen was in Las Vegas, at their national convention in 2009, and I was so nervous," Mr. Gray said. "When it was over and the curtain dropped, there was total silence and I thought, 'Oh no.' But then there was a roar of applause. One airman who was in tears came up to me and said, 'Layon, you told the story right.' No matter how many good reviews the play gets, nothing will ever compare to that."
Events schedule leading to the Sunday unveiling of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region.
Thursday, Sept. 12, at 2 p.m.: Ribbon cutting of the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit at Pittsburgh International Airport, Gate A, with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, airport officials and special guests. (Airport security clearance required.)
Friday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m.: Concert by Josh White Jr. and Quaker Valley Elementary School band, reception plus meet and greet. Edgeworth Club, Sewickley. (Free but RSVP at 412-773-0899 or email@example.com.)
Saturday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m: "Black Angels over Tuskegee" at Byham Theater, Downtown (trustarts.org or 412-456-6666.)
Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m.: Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Dedication of the outdoor memorial at Sewickley Cemetery. Christian Motorcycle Association & Veterans' motorcycle-led processional from the Village of Sewickley. Music by Pittsburgh Ceremonial Brass and Josh White, Jr. (Free and open to the public. Remote parking at sites in Sewickley and free shuttle bus service to cemetery. Rain location: Sewickley United Methodist Church.)
Sunday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m.: Community Appreciation Concert featuring The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir at Sewickley Methodist Church. (Free and open to the public.)
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.