‘The Flying Hobos’ interactive play lands on campus


Broadway actors Jeantique Oriol (front) and Drew Drake perform as James Herman Banning and Thomas Allen Cox, the first African-Americans to fly across the county, in the KIVA on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

Allyson Nichols

The story of the first African-Americans to fly across the United States came to Kent State’s KIVA on Wednesday.

Sponsored by the College of Aeronautics and Engineering, “The Flying Hobos,” a living history interactive play, made its landing and focused on a pilot named James Herman Banning and his companion, Thomas Allen Cox.

“The Flying Hobos” story began when Pat Smith, an educator, was researching for National Geographic. She came across a small newspaper clipping about first transcontinental flight completed by two African-American airmen in 1932, a time when racial barriers existed and few opportunities in aviation were available.

Smith asked around museums to find out who Banning was, but nobody seemed to know, which only made her more determined in her research. After sharing the story with her friend, Louisa Jaggar, they felt this was a story that needed to be told. This began their company, Greatest Stories Never Told.

Smith found documents, such as four articles written by Banning for the Pittsburgh Courier and a box of 100 pages written by Allen containing details of their flight, including the names of those who donated to help them with their flight.

“We’re very careful with the research,”

Smith said.

The play has been performed across the United States. It has primarily occurred in elementary and middle schools to give children role models and incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

Last February, Smith and Jaggar met Christina Bloebaum, the Space Grant Consortium officer at Iowa State College.

“Over the summer, she moved here, and the first thing she talked about was ‘The Flying Hobos’ program and bringing it here into this area,” Smith said. “We contacted her and started setting it up.”

At Kent State, the crowd interacted with the characters in the play and joined them on their adventure. They asked who in the audience had cash to donate for the flight, and they asked audience members to do the math for how much gas they would need.

For this particular program, Jeantique Oriol starred as Banning, and Drew Drake starred as Cox. Both men are Broadway actors.

Oriol said the play gives off this message: “Freedom in the air will one day lead to freedom on the ground.”

“If African-Americans and blacks can prove to their white counterparts, that we’re smart enough to learn the instruments and mechanics of being able to fly an aircraft at that time, then maybe they’ll respect us when we get it back down to the ground … hopefully inspire some younger fliers and children to get up to the sky and push themselves,” Oriol said.

Drake said the play and its history bring a strong sense of healing to the community.

“I think it’s … realizing the power of these two gentlemen going throughout the country and stopping in certain communities and how people embraced them,” Drake said. “During that time, we had the idea that it was segregated, and so black or white … these two gentlemen realizing there are white people out here that are doing beautiful things and are helping in ways, so I think that’s something kind of healing, too.”

Allyson Nichols covers theatre, music and dance. Contact her at [email protected].