Sitting down for a lunch break at a windowside table at Waterside Market in Vineyard Haven, Ricardo Khan leaned in comfortably and said with a laugh, “You’ll have to do the talking, I’ve got to eat!” His eyes brim with good humor; this is a man at ease with himself and the world around him. Small personal tales spill easily into the conversation, unsurprising for a playwright and director who has dedicated his life to the art of gathering individual stories and weaving them into narratives that speak to an audience from the stage.

Today he is on a scheduled break from rehearsals of Fly, the play he is directing at the Vineyard Playhouse. His time is measured by stage manager Matt Jackson, whose formidable physical structure is countered by a halcyon voice with a slight southern accent. Mr. Khan cowrote Fly with Trey Ellis, about the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. The show previews at the playhouse on June 17.

Both Mr. Ellis and Mr. Kahn bring impressive resumes to the table: Mr. Ellis is an Emmy-nominated, American Book Award-winning novelist, and Mr. Khan is cofounder and artistic director of the Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick, N.J., one of the nation’s foremost African-American theatre companies. Under his direction Crossroads won a Tony for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 1999.

Originally commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education in New York city, Fly tells the historical and emotional tale of the nation’s first African-American aviation combat unit, formed during World War II when the nation’s armed forces were segregated.

At the time the country’s roughly 12 million African-American citizens were without basic civil rights, yet nearly two and a half million registered for the military draft, answering their nation’s call to combat fascism overseas even as they were discriminated against at home. Over one million African-Americans served in all branches of the armed forces during World War II.

The idea of forming an African-American aviation unit was referred to as the Tuskegee Experiment by a skeptical U.S. government. The men proved to be an exceptional group of pilots, distinguishing themselves as the only fighter escorts that did not lose a single Allied bomber plane to enemy fire. Their accomplishments paved the way for a 1948 executive order desegregating the American military by President Harry S. Truman, and the greater civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“You carry with you a sense of pride,” said Fly choreographer Hope Clarke. A veteran both on and off Broadway, Ms. Clarke was the first African-American woman to direct and choreograph a major staging of the George Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess. A former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, she carries herself like a dancer.

By her estimation she is one of only three African-American women choreographers on Broadway, and she credits part of her success to trials endured by predecessors like the Tuskegee Airmen. “I had nothing like what they endured,” she said as the sun set on a full day of rehearsals in Vineyard Haven. “They opened the door for all of us and we didn’t even know it. Most people didn’t even know it. I’m very grateful that they existed.”

Fly features an ensemble cast of eight men, and with the help of Ms. Clarke, Mr. Khan has created a performance that he calls “visual and visceral.” There is no intermission because Mr. Khan does not want his audience to “have time to think about it, the experience just happens to them.”

Just as it happened to the Tuskegee Airmen who faced relentless racism and prejudice, both in the service and upon returning home.

While working with the famous Broadway tap dancer Savion Glover, Mr. Khan noticed Mr. Glover’s “heavy heel,” and began ruminating on tap dancing’s ability to convey the weighty emotions the Tuskegee Airmen may have battled with. “There is a heavy thing that has to be said [with Fly],” he reflected over lunch, “and I wondered if maybe a tapper could translate that experience.”

So he decided to use a Tap Griot (pronounced gree-oh), a character to convey the emotional experience of the men through movement, played by the accomplished and extraordinarily charming Ted Louis Levy, also of Broadway fame. “He [Levy] tells the part of the story that is about rage when they’re not allowed to, or fear when they’re not allowed to, or mourning when they’re not allowed to,” Mr. Khan said.

Mr. Levy, who is a Navy veteran, is a recipient of the Gregory Hines Humanitarian Award, and among many other accolades won an Emmy for his role in Precious Memories, and a Tony nomination for Jelly’s Last Jam.

Sitting in a prop-filled dressing room after rehearsal, Mr. Levy likened his dancing role in Fly to a heartbeat. “It is the rhythm of pain, the rhythm of triumph, the rhythm of determination, of pride,” he said, pausing and then asking: “What is the rhythm of fear when you go and fight for a country, and you come back and you could be lynched? I mean, what is the rhythm of that? That is the discovery process. Even in the confines of despair comes great discovery.”

Fly comes to the playhouse as a work in progress; this marks its first incarnation as a full-length show. Playhouse artistic director and producer M.J. Bruder-Munafo said she and director Ricardo Khan met a number of years ago. “I admire him, I admire his theatre, his work and it is just a privilege to produce Fly,” she said.

Mr. Khan has been coming to the Vineyard to write for years, and finds inspiration in its rich African-American heritage and the calm of the Island’s natural beauty. “Whenever I get on the ferry I watch and feel my anxieties go away,” he said. “There is something in the air — a creative thing.” Glancing at the people walking down Main street, he said: “I love the Vineyard — so many people are in the same place together [here], living the American dream.”

In 2007, nearly 60 years after their service, the American dream became a reality for the Tuskegee Airmen, who were recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal. At the time Illinois Sen. Barack Obama released a statement saying in part: “My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed.”

When President Obama invited the Tuskegee pilots to his inauguration in January, the sight of the uniformed men, now in their 80s and 90s, sitting near the nation’s first African-American president, captured the imagination of many, including Mr. Khan, who weaved the moment into Fly. He said it was like watching “that big door get knocked down . . . they didn’t wonder about whether or not they could knock those walls down. It was a matter of when they would. And they endured.”

Fly previews on June 17, 18 and 19, and opens on June 20. For more information about tickets and show times visit