In the debate over property rights, some would have us believe that the "haves" are all big, impersonal, multinational corporations that use their vast holdings to shackle the "little guy." (Think local telephone companies resisting past regulators' efforts to lease their networks to competitors at bargain basement rates.) Yet property rights can just as easily serve as a bulwark against oppression to the extent it empowers individuals to break the bonds of what is expected and chart their own course. I was reminded of this when I attended "Flyin' West" by the True Colors Theater Company, the resident company of Washington's historic Lincoln Theater.
"Flyin' West" by Pearl Cleage tells the story of one group of African American women who moved from the South after the Civil War to help settle an all-black town in rural Kansas. The story picks up mid-way, several years after the women, two of whom are sisters, acquired the land under the Homestead Act of 1860 to build a farm. We learn that they moved primarily to escape the violence and degradation of the Jim Crow South, which apparently robbed the sisters of both mother and father. The central plot concerns whether the townspeople will risk their hard-earned independence by selling their land to greedy developers, and whether one sister's husband (on their visit from jollier England) will assist in that effort. (The irony of former slaves, who were property, trying to defend their own property was not lost on anyone in the audience, hopefully.)
The production (which plays through Sunday, September 25) is about many things -- race, gender, domestic violence, strong performances and dialogue that often sizzles and stings like oil on a hot, campfire griddle. What struck me most, however, was the characters' love for their property, not simply out of nostalgia for their happy years there, but also because of what the land represented to them. The land they farmed, called home and defended with their lives served at once as their means of economic production and the source of their freedom and dignity; it offered sustenance both worldly and spiritual.
A far cry from esoteric debates over how to treat property (and the big dollars related to it) with respect to telephone company networks and Hollywood films? Perhaps. But the gravity of the issues in "Flyin' West" -- and the close nexus Cleage highlights between property and very human outcomes -- remind us that debates over property are at base debates over liberty itself. And there is nothing esoteric about that.