The Great Migration “Flyin’ West”


Pearl Cleage
Pearl Cleage

The 2014 Savannah Black Heritage Festival will enlighten and entertain many in our community with a very significant, but little-known historical story about “The Great Migration“ of freed slaves and free persons of color from the South to the West to a town called Nicodemus, Kansas during the 1870s. Nicodemus, KS was established after the Civil War during Reconstruction and is proclaimed as the only remaining all-Black town west of the Mississippi.

In 1992, the reknown poet, essayist, journalist and playwright, Pearl Cleage of Atlanta, GA wrote a play about this interesting movement entitled, “Flyin’ West”. Together with the author, Beverly Jenkins, and choreographer, Waverly T. Lucas, II., this series will be presented in a 3-part format of student sessions, dance, and public lectures/conversations on February 3rd, 4th, and 6th as a part of the Annual W.W. Law Lecture series. Cleage and Jenkins will be the principal participants in the lecturer series. This project is supported by the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities and through appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly. Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” gives voice to six newly-freed slaves who give their personal accounts of life from slavery to freedom and settling in Nicodemus which is proclaimed as the very first town settled by African-Americans. These four women and six men point out that the westward American migration was multicultural and multiracial. Cleage will also hold a book signing on February 3rd. Choreographer and Co-Founder Waverly T. Lucas II, along with Nena Gilreath of the Ballethnic Dance Company of Atlanta, is also a former member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Atlanta Ballet. When Lucas experienced Cleage’s play, he was so inspired that he traveled to Nicodemus, KS to research and interview descendants; thereby creating “Flyin West”, a full length, one-hour narrative ballet. Like the play, historical facts are the underpinnings for this production and the personal accounts reveal issues of race, gender and migration. Ballethnic’s Flyin’ West features Lucas’ signature choreography, the use of multimedia, as well as an original set design. Additionally, the production uses the works of William Grant Still, “the Dean” of African American composers, as its main musical scores. Still is known for his numerous ‘firsts’ as an African-American composer – first to conduct a symphony orchestra, first to have his own symphony and opera conducted by a major performing company, first to conduct a White radio orchestra and first to have an opera televised over a national network.

Flyin’ West also incorporates original arrangements of live and recorded compositions of folk music, classical, contemporary, percussive and melodic genres.

On Monday evening, February 3rd, Cleage opens the W. W. Law Lecture Series with A Public Conversation Between Playwright Pearl Cleage and Choreographer Waverly Lucas to discuss “Influences of ‘The Great Migration’ Westward and Nicodemus, KS, Upon “Flyin’ West” the Play and “Flyin’ West” the Ballet. This is scheduled for 7:00 p.m., at the First Congregational Church, 421 Habersham St. The ballet performance will be on Tuesday, February 4th in the Johnny Mercer Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Free general admission tickets are available for the ballet performance and can be obtained at the Civic Center Box Office, Lester’s Florist on Bull St., and Cumulus Broadcasting on Television Circle, beginning January 21st.

Author and Premiere Historical Fiction Novelist, Beverly Jenkins, will close the Lecture series on February 6th with a public presentation where she will share her methodology for research into the history of the African-American migration Westward. She will also speak about how she tied that history into the theme for her fictional romance novel series, “Bring On the Blessings” which is set in an historical all-Black town named Henry Adams in Kansas founded by freed slaves in the 1870s. Jenkins will present at The Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 West York St., at 6:30 p.m.

Pearl Cleage is a graduate of Spelman College, where she also served on the faculty as a writer and playwright in-residence, as well as Creative Director. She also studied at Howard University, Washington, D.C. and is the Best Selling author for novels that have been on the Essence magazine Book Club, the Oprah Book Club, and the Good Morning America Book Club. She is also a recipient of the N.A.A.C.P. Image Award.

Beverly Jenkins attended Michigan State University where she majored in Journalism and English Literature. She is re-known as the nation’s premier writer of African American historical romance fiction specializing in 19th century African-American life and history. She has published 30 novels and is the recipient of five Waldenbooks/ Borders Group Best Sellers; a Golden Pen Award from the Black Writers’ Guild and was named one of the Top 50 Favorite African-American Writers of the 20th Century by AABLC. Jenkins has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, People magazine, and Vibe magazine.

Both Cleage and Jenkins will host Book-signings after their presentations.

The Festival is presented by the City of Savannah and Savannah State University. Free General Admission tickets for “Flyin’ West” the Ballet, performed by the Ballethnic Dance Company on Tuesday, February 4th, as part of the 25th Annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival, will be available beginning January 21st at 10 a.m., at the following locations: Savannah Civic Center Box Office; Lester’s Florist, 2100 Bull St., & Cumulus Broadcasting, 214 Television Circle. Limit, 4 tickets per patron. NOTE: On the evening of the performance: Priority Seating for Ticket-holders until 10 minutes prior to curtain call at which time, all unclaimed seats become available.

For more information on the Black Heritage Festival Schedule go to savannahblackheritage.com


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