Arts & Culture

For playwright, story about first women to fly in World War II is a dream come true

A play about the first women to fly during World War II, written by Tamara Keeton and Katherine Kelly of Olympia, makes its world premiere.
A play about the first women to fly during World War II, written by Tamara Keeton and Katherine Kelly of Olympia, makes its world premiere. Courtesy

“The Originals,” premiering Friday, is a history play, telling the true story of the first women to fly with the U.S. military during World War II.

And for playwright Tamara Keeton, it’s also an intensely personal story about the women she calls “my girls” — women who changed her life.

When she read about these pioneering women, who flew for the military in 1942 as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), Keeton was fascinated.

While researching the women, she got in touch with one of the women, Barbara Erickson London, known during her flying days as Barbara Jane Erickson.

“She ended up being like a surrogate mom to me,” Keeton told the Olympian. “I would visit her. She lived in Long Beach, where she’d served, and through her, I met a lot of aviation people.”

Meeting London — and later fellow WAFS pilots Teresa James and Nancy Batson — reignited Keeton’s childhood desire to fly.

“I dreamed about flying,” she said. “I used to watch planes when I was a kid. After watching the moon landing in 1969, I wanted to be an astronaut. … Meeting these girls brought my dream back to me.”

Fly she did, earning her pilot’s license in 1996. But a back injury kept her grounded for year. Besides, she had something else to do — a story to tell of the first women to fly, women who’ve been largely forgotten by history.

“I got my license, and Barbara told me, ‘I’m sure you’re a very good pilot, dear, but I think it’s time for you to get back to what you were meant to do.’ And that was write.”

She promised London she would tell the women’s story.

“I said, Barbara, if you had a story told about you and the girls, what would you want it to be?’ ” Keeton said. “She said: ‘It’s a love story.’

“It’s about love of flying, love of country, serving your country. It’s about the friendships that they formed.”

In 2004, Keeton began work on a screenplay about London, James, Batson and two other pilots who were part of the WAFS. It took her nine years to write it, and she wasn’t able to get it produced.

Two years ago, the project took flight again when she and Kelly adapted it into a play with help from director Claribel Gross.

This weekend’s production — with a cast including such well-known Olympia actors as Amy Shephard as Erickson, Jesse Morrow as James and Keith Eisner as Drew Pearson, a journalist who covered the WAFS — will happen not in a theater but inside the Olympic Flight Museum.

“It’s a little experimental because we’re going to be in an airplane hangar,” Kelly told the Olympian. “There are some places where it drifts from a typical stage play because of the location.”

For Keeton, the production, a collaboration among playwrights, director and cast, is another dream come true.

“I get caught up in the details, and sometimes I forget about how amazing this whole thing is on a personal level,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll sit back and cry a little bit, because I’ll remember that this is about my girls, and they’re gone now, and I miss them.

“Sometimes I have to stop and remember these people I love. It’s for them.”

London and the other pilots Keeton befriended didn’t live to see their story told on stage, but London’s daughter Terry London Rinehart, also a pilot, will be in the audience Friday.

The Originals

What: A play about the first women to fly during World War II, written by Tamara Keeton and Katherine Kelly of Olympia, makes its world premiere.

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, with doors opening an hour early

Where: Olympic Flight Museum, 7637 Old Hwy. 99 SE, Tumwater

Tickets: $25, with proceeds benefiting the museum. Tickets are available online and at the door; only cash and checks can be accepted at the door.

More information: facebook.com/OlyFlightMuseum/

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