Actress, writer and director Mary McCallum was actually researching material for another project when she began discovering information about pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman. What she found proved so revealing and unprecedented she decided to create a property celebrating Coleman's relatively short, yet amazing life.
McCallum and Sistastyle Productions' latest play Fly, Girl, a dramatization of Coleman's career and accomplishments, debuts Friday night at Darkhorse Theater. McCallum hopes her work, which is being shown as part of the Nashville community's Black History Month observances, will alert others to Coleman's importance and achievements.
"While there have been books and other things done about her life, in general the public doesn't know nearly as much about Bessie Coleman as they do about Amelia Earhart," McCallum said. "Yet when it comes to aviation she was without question a real pioneer.
“She was the first American of any race or gender to have an international pilot's license and the first black woman to have any type of pilot's license. Her life has been an inspiration to many in the aviation world, and the story is very rich, yet it hasn't been told to the extent that it deserves."
Fly, Girl, which is directed by Barry Scott, begins with Coleman's childhood in Texas, then later picks up when she's moved to Chicago. McCallum portrays Coleman as a adult, and the play follows her exploits.
Though she died at 34, in the short time between 1921 and 1926 she was nicknamed "Queen Bess" and became well known for her stunt flying — and was one of the era's most colorful personalities, male or female. She overcame resistance and racism (no American flight school would accept her inquiries) to become an international sensation.
While a dramatization, Fly, Girl's narrative contains plenty of factual material about Coleman's amazing story. The 10th of 13 children, Bessie grew up in Atlanta, Texas, and attended a one-room all-black school. An outstanding math student and extensive reader, she later moved to Chicago, where her goal of becoming a pilot was aided by real estate promoter Jesse Binga as well as the editor of the Chicago Defender, then arguably the nation's most influential black newspaper.
Coleman learned French at the Berlitz School in Chicago and eventually went to Paris, where she honed her flying skills on a Nieuport Type 82 biplane and was also the student of an French ace pilot. Subsequently she earned her domestic and international pilot's licenses in 1921, and was dubbed "Queen Bess" before her death in a flying accident during a practice run before one of her air shows in 1926.
Fly, Girl also stars Molly Breen, Jene India, Tamiko Robinson, Rodrikus Springfield, Jordyn Tucker, Shelena Walden, David Chattam and Shawn Whitsell.
Another recent McCallum stage work, The 70% Club, was made into a film, and the cinematic production won the Best Feature award at last year's International Black Film Festival of Nashville.
McCallum, Breen, Chattam, India, Robinson, and Whitsell are also among the cast of the play The D Word, which will be performed in Manhattan next month as part of a Winter Arts Festival. Others in that production, which was also penned by McCallum, include Cortez Lee, Alicia Ridley, Jason McGowan and Jimmie Hill.
"In terms of challenges, what I hope we accomplish with this play is showing audiences just how ahead of her time and how much of a pioneer Bessie Coleman was," McCallum said. "She didn't leave behind a lot of letters or other personal things, so as a writer I took the historical information that was there and created a story I feel is faithful to what she did and the things she accomplished. I hope the play will inspire people in the way that reading about what she did, especially during an era when there weren't a lot of opportunities for black people or women, inspired me as a writer and performer."
IF YOU GO
What: Fly, Girl, a play about historic aviator Bessie Coleman, written by Mary McCallum and directed by Barry Scott
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, and Feb. 25-27
Where: Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Ave.