Fly Girls

Nobody knows where Amelia Earhart’s final landing took place. But one place Earhart landed for sure was Cleveland — for the conclusion of the 1929 Women’s Air Derby. That competition, won by the lesser-known but also Kansas-born Louise Thadden, is the subject of Women of the Wind, a new play by Lori Lee Triplett of Overland Park.

Triplett, who directs the new Heart of America Performing Arts Group (based in Baldwin City, it seeks to unify performing-arts ensembles in the Midwest), has written close to seventy plays. Many fall under a genre she calls “historicals that feature interesting women.” Initially, she wanted to write solely about Earhart, but she decided against it. “So much has already been written,” she admits. But the subject was a good jumping-off place; it was during Triplett’s two years of research on Earhart that she discovered the 1929 derby, where Earhart finished fourth.

“Aviation was just starting out, and there were many firsts about the derby,” Triplett says. “It was the first time women were allowed to fly in an air race … and the first meeting of women pilots of this magnitude.” That women were just beginning to assert their abilities as pilots isn’t surprising; it had been less than a decade since they’d gained the right to vote. But the Derby was monumental in other ways as well. “It was the largest gathering of media up to that point,” Triplett says.

The play spotlights other female aviators, too, such as second-place finisher Gladys O’Donnell. But Triplett chose to tell the story through the eyes of two young, fictional characters, Eunice and Cora Lee Richford, so she could relay the significance of the event without having to include too much biography.

“I wanted the audience to have characters they could relate to,” she says. “It provides them a viewpoint from which to look up to these women.”

Triplett, who is a professor of theater at Baker University, seems to have hit pay dirt with Women of the Wind. The play won her a playwriting fellowship through the Kansas Arts Commission’s biannual competition. The $5,000 prize allowed her to buy a new computer, and she says she’ll create a Web site that will let theater companies peruse her scripts.

In honor of the play’s world premiere, members of the 99s, an international organization of women pilots, are flying in for the last weekend of the run later this month. Founded the same year as the derby, the Oklahoma City-based group boasts 6,000 women from 35 countries among its ranks. “The Kansas City chapter just celebrated its 60th anniversary and has about 65 members,” says Jennifer Havens, former chairwoman of the Greater Kansas City chapter and a pilot for eight years. “They are a mix of private pilots and commercial pilots” — a cross section Havens says represents the fact that “aviation has changed a lot.”