Famed female pilot Betsy Coleman was a groundbreaking figure in the world of aviation.
In the 1920s, she not only broke down racial and gender barriers by becoming the world's only African-American aviatrix, but also was the first woman to ever hold an international pilot's license.
So it's something of a shame, really, that the sky jockey isn't as well known as her more famous counterpart Amelia Earhart.
Local playwright Larissa Brewington, however, is hoping to increase Coleman's fame and renown with her one-woman show Into the Blue with Bessie Coleman, which opens today at Herberger Theatre Center and documents the life and times of "Queen Bessie."
"Her heyday was a couple years before Amelia," Brewington says. "And had she been Caucasian, Bessie would probably be a lot more well known than Earhart."
Brewington says Coleman's life story was just as inspiring as Earhart's and ended just as tragically. Coleman, the child of Texas sharecroppers, transcended her meager beginnings and eventually traveled the world. She was inspired by the tales of World War I pilots she heard about while working as a manicurist and taught herself French before moving to Paris to undergo pilot training in the early 1920s.
She eventually became a toast of the media upon her return to America, earning the nickname of "Queen Bessie" and drawing hundreds to people to her performances as a barnstormer and stunt performer. Tragedy struck in 1926, however, when Coleman was killed in a training accident prior to a Florida air show.
Her struggles and life story inspired countless other African-Americans, including astronaut Mae Jemison, who called a Coleman "a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty."
Brewington, who's had a lifelong fascination with Coleman herself, penned Into the Blue as a tribute to her heroine. The plot of the one-woman show, which is being staged as a part of the Herberger's "Lunchtime Theater" series, involves Coleman discussing her life and adventures to a crowd of reporters during an autograph session just prior to the deadly accident.
"Above all else, Bessie was a showman," Brewington says. "That's why she enjoyed performing in air shows. So anyone asking her about her life story would always get an earful."
Into The Blue with Bessie Coleman begins a nine-day run starting at 12:10 p.m. today at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Performances run through Thursday, September 15. Admission is $6.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.