Written by Lydia R. Diamond
Original Music by Alicia Keys
Directed by Kenny Leon
Location: Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: David Gallo, Lighting: Beverly Emmons, Costumes: Reggie Ray;, Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Starring Rosie Benton, Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Condola Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms
Before the curtain rises, the voice of the outspoken LeVay family can already be distinctly heard. Under “setting” in the playbill, playwright Lydia R. Diamond specifies that the action takes place in Martha’s Vineyard, but takes care to emphasize “not the Bluffs.” The reference is to Oak Bluffs, an area of the Vineyard identified with upscale African American families. It’s where Joseph (Reuben Santiago-Hudson) and his brood might be expected to have a summer home. Then again the LeVays have never settled for what society thinks “Black” is supposed to mean. From their house to their opinions, everything they do indicates that they play by their own rules: ones which aren’t always easy for an outsider to understand. Although the family opens its doors to new arrivals, this house holds so many secrets and thinly concealed wounds that it’s hard not to bump into trouble.
No wonder budding entomologist Taylor (Tracie Thoms) has difficulty navigating this new territory. Her fiancée, Kent “Spoon” LeVay (Dulé Hill), is a typical younger son. A big disappointment to Joseph – though certainly not to Taylor- he has decided to pursue his own path in life and become a writer. His big brother Flip (Mekhi Phifer) is a typical number one son: a surgeon just like his dad, and with much of the same aura of manly self-satisfaction. Flip’s girlfriend Kimber (Rosie Benton) is also meeting the family for the first time. And although the enlightened LeVays would never make an issue out of it, the fact that she’s white causes Flip some anxiety — so much so that he goes around telling everyone she’s Italian as if that would soften the impact (she’s actually Anglo-Saxon). Cross generational issues also pervade the kitchen, where 18 year old Cheryl (Condola Rashad) spends most of her time. Like her mother before her, Cheryl works for the Levays and struggles to reconcile mixed messages. Is she part of the family or just the hired help? It’s hard to know sometimes, and the presence of new women in the house does little to bolster her sense of ownership. For added spice, it turns out that Taylor and Flip have a past history, one which threatens to reveal itself as the evening wears on and the alcohol flows.
This setup abounds with comic potential, and Diamond wrings plenty of laughs out of the awkward dynamics at hand. But there is much more here than just the usual dysfunction junction drollery. The youths, especially Taylor, have a lot to say about the way the world looks now, and much of their criticism is justified. Despite decades of progress, being African American and middle class is still difficult. Joseph smiles wryly at some of this venting, after all his generation came of age in a much less hospitable climate. But he also, in his own way, understands. (One of the play’s most memorable beats involves a contemplative moment between him and Taylor.) Underneath all the complaints though, lies the age old search for self-definition, as well as some profound personal tragedy. Taylor’s father was a famed intellectual, but gave the world much more than he did his family. Cheryl, too, has her sense of identity shattered as she learns a long hidden truth whose repercussions ripple throughout the family.
Diamond’s instinctive sense of structure ensures that the turns of the plot feel organic and character driven. It is a pleasure to see that a play can be well made in the classical sense and yet still vibrate with a contemporary sensibility. Director Kenny Leon nimbly orchestrates the ensemble so that the entrances and exits, jousts and embraces feel spontaneous. Never rushed, his assured style allows each cast member — all of them superb — to find both an individual rhythm and a counterpoint to the other players. The evening’s tone of lyrical realism is bolstered by Beverly Emmons’s lighting design, Reggie Ray’s costumes and David Gallo’s sets. As in life, the different rooms in the house become characters in their own right: kitchen, living room, and porch each provoke different behavior from their inhabitants.
Significantly, the matriarch of the family does not attend this gathering, so that the onstage cast of characters is equally balanced in terms of gender. Hill, Santiago-Hudson and Phifer form a convincing and contentious family unit. The sons exhibit different aspects of their father’s complex personality—including some they may rue inheriting. The women, brought together by circumstance rather than blood, must negotiate the terms of their relationships. Rashad, Thoms, and Benton bring high octane estrogen and heartfelt sensitivity to the tender, protective, competitive and witty community that emerges as a force for the LeVay men to reckon with. By the end of the evening, there’s a palpable feeling that the hurts will heal, that the ambitions and wants of the rising generation have at least a fighting chance at fruition.
Make no mistake, though. Stick Fly is by no means a feel-good show. The overall prognosis on “post-racial” America is less than rosy, and the bombshell that drops in the second act spells the end of innocence for all involved. Ironically, though, these unsettling truths only serve to make the play, in its own way, more life affirming. By grounding the show in reality, Diamond takes what might have been a drawing room comedy and gives it an unexpected depth and potency. Hers is a welcome and promising new voice on Broadway.