Under a Microscope: Stick Fly on Broadway

Kenny Leon is on fire. Just ask him. Two plays he directed are currently playing on Broadway to packed houses, featuring star performers, and are being considered in the context of his past work which include a slew of August Wilson’s plays, and Lorraine Hansbury’s classic, A Raisin in the Sun. When it comes to recreating the black experience on stage, Leon’s resume speaks volumes.

Despite having the “it” director of color for this new play by Lydia Diamond, Stick Fly fails to take off in the theater. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Was I expecting this to be a new classic, the next pivotal play to chart the African American experience in a specific era? Are we that starved for color on Broadway that we instantly assume that any play with a non-white cast is destined for greatness?

I am almost happy to report that Stick Fly was gloriously mediocre, but you should go see for yourself. The plot did have a couple of twists, and the dialogue was racy, even dangerous at times in its discussion of race, class, and gender politics. The characters were more complex than Tyler Perry might come up with; the story was engaging. At times, the relationships felt contrived, complete with father-son rivalry, and the overt intimacy of new young couples giving each other ridiculous pet names. Welcome to mainstream.

Set in an ornate historical home in Martha’s Vineyard, the LeVay brothers Flip and Spoon introduce their girlfriends to the patriarch, Joe LeVay. It would appear that Diamond’s central question motivating this play is “what does it mean to be black, wealthy, and educated in America?” A stunning set design by David Gallo, featuring iconic paintings by black artists like Romare Bearden, help paint the picture. When Flip LeVay, the oldest son played by Mekhi Pfifer, refers to his girlfriend Kimber, (Rosie Benton) they unconsciously imply that being white translates to a kind of cultural blank slate. Feeling the need to impose a richer ethnic identity, Flip tells his family “She’s Italian.” We all laugh when his father played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson addresses her with “bongiorno bella!” In this family, being white is a liability, which is only slightly off set by Kimber’s advance study in African American culture, history, and education disparity.

Eager to impress her future in-laws with her helpfulness and learned female role playing, Spoon’s fiance Taylor, as realized by Tracie Thoms, is unnerved by the presence of Cheryl, the young maid in the household. Strata of social class begin to emerge when Cheryl grows annoyed at Taylor’s apologetic approach, “it’s by job” she tells her. Condola Rashad is pitch perfect as Cheryl, who asserts her pride in honest work.  While Taylor feels she’s got something to prove, Kimber later points out that white women only achieve what is expected of them. Pretty girls never aspire more than they need to. Taylor expresses her frustration at  teaching cultural sensitivity to her classmates, “Beckys” she calls them, for whom “Diversity” is a flouted goal, but never a reality. These very different women are unified by their respective ambition.

Despite the skill of the cast, the first act in particular was extremely rushed. They spat out their lines as if by rote. The timing and rhythm of the language was thrown off by missing the timing of lines, speaking through audience laughter, and not listening to each other on stage. Cheryl announces “I’ll get it!” a half beat before the phone rings. Original music by Alicia Keys helps break up the scenes and establish the tone. By the end, everything everyone was too afraid to say has been said and still questions hang in the air for these characters. Fortunately, Diamond did not undermine the important issues she addressed in this play by wrapping it up with a nice bow at the end. Sometimes moments of redemption don’t come and it’s up to us to decide whether to continue the story, or make our own happy ending.

Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond, Directed by Kenny Leon. Plays at The Cort Theatre on Broadway. Tickets on sale thru February 28 at Telecharge Ticketing. Visit www.stickflybroadway.com for more info.