Perhaps best known for his play Black Angels Over Tuskegee, playwright and director Layon Gray, despite the odds, has successfully ran this off Broadway production for over a year and a half. Expecting to last only a few weeks, Black Angels Over Tuskegee tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. During World War II the Tuskegee Airmen became the first African American pilots in the United States Armed Forces. Despite dealing with racism and many other adversities in a still racially segregated military, these men were extremely successful in their missions. This play has won many awards, including an NAACP award for best play and an Audelco award (An extremely prestigious award given to productions by Black companies, shows written or directed by Blacks, or Black actors in shows and is sometimes referred to as the Black Tony). This success though, for Layon, did not come fast, easily, or without sacrifice.
Born and raised in Louisiana, Layon spent a lot of time as a child writing. He is self-taught and spent many hours in the library learning how to properly format his work. Around 2000 was when Layon left home and journeyed out to L.A. His goal was to become an actor. After realizing, however, that there were not many roles that piqued his interest, he went back to writing. Meet Me at the Oak Tree was his first play, hitting the stage in 2003. Set in 1955 Louisiana, this play tells the true story about Layon’s father’s side of the family and was centered around an old oak tree that was used for lynching in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. For nearly six months this show played for sold out theatres and brought in many awards. Part of Layon’s mission for his plays is to communicate and inspire. He tells me, “A lot of our African American stories aren’t in history books and if we don’t tell this history it will slowly diminish and it will be gone. As a writer I feel it is one of my duties to keep these stories alive and bring them to the forefront.”[pullquote_left] …as a writer and as a human being, when [one of the airmen] said, ‘You told our story right,’ and he gave me a big hug, it truly touched me and made me… [/pullquote_left]
Layon is clearly keeping to his word. In addition to these two plays, he has two others, Harlem Renaissance and A Negro League of Their Own that go back in time, delving into African American culture and history. Currently in development, Harlem Renaissance explores the first fully professional African American all-black basketball team. Formed in Harlem in 1923, this team came before the Harlem Globetrotters. During the 1932-33 season their record was 120-8 with the Rens winning 88 consecutive games, a streak that no other professional team has been able to match. On the fiction side, and modeled after the popular 1992 film A League of Their Own, A Negro League of Their Own is a story about an African American women’s baseball league formed in Chicago in 1945. This team is set to play an exhibition game against the Rockford Peaches (A League of Their Own) and chronicles African American female racism, sexism, deceit, betrayal, and drama. This play was selected for the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina. Layon has proven to be not only a master teacher, but a master entertainer.
When I asked Layon what the proudest moment in his career has been so far, he told me about Black Angels Over Tuskegee performing a couple of years back at the Tuskegee Airmen National Convention in Las Vegas. Meeting the Tuskegee Airmen and having his play performed for them was one of the scariest moments for him as a writer. “I’ll never forget this,” he tells me, “as a writer and as a human being, when [one of the airmen] said, ‘You told our story right,’ and he gave me a big hug, it truly touched me and made me proud to have written this piece.” At that point, the journey of Black Angels was just getting started. From writing it in his studio kitchen in North Hollywood, to putting it in L.A. and New York, Layon is eagerly anticipating what is coming next. Currently in pre-production, the play will be seen on Broadway sometime next year. Layon, no doubt, is aiming for a Tony. His passion and determination are hard to miss. As is his talent. If you get the chance, come and see his show. You will not be disappointed.