Fort Worth — When the incomparable Alicia Keys made her Broadway producing debut in 2011 with Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, the play’s blatant insistence on a cavalcade of “isms” probably functioned as an effective and productive commentary on the social climate of the time.
Seven years, in the grand scheme of things, is a blip—half a moment in history—however, in the rapidly-evolving Zeitgeist of post-modern America, themes like racism, classism, sexism, colorism, and feminism change in language and form at the drop of a hat. Today, Diamond’s work, which is structured around all of these existential concepts and more, seems to elbow its way into a self-affirmed niche within the public discourse, rather than posing organically for intellectual consumption. At least, these were my initial thoughts after seeing the area premiere of the play at Jubilee Theatre, directed by Khira Hailey, last weekend.
I don’t mean to say that the piece, as a work of art, no longer serves a social purpose. On the contrary, as the subject matter has the potential to shed a scrutinizing light on intercultural relations in America through an interesting enough cross-section of demographics and psychographics.
Furthermore, the quality of Jubilee Theatre’s production, technically speaking, is solid. The ensemble delivers a strong, balanced performace, with many great interpretations of emotionally dense moments.
Costume designer Bree Moore is attentive to the subtle impact that fashion has on the audience’s impression of the characters. She outfits the players in unassuming, contemporary garb that captures their nuances and reinforces the dynamics between them. I was particularly impressed with Megan Beddingfield’s set design. The venue is rather small, with very little space separating the stage from the seats. However, Beddingfield does well to transform it into a beautiful, well-organized home. Notably, the fully stocked refrigerator is a constant point of contact for the players throughout the night, lending a tangible layer of believability to underscore the action and dialogue. All of this is good.
What I struggle to get past, unfortunately, is the soap-operatic absurdity of the plot.
Stick Fly is a family comedy-drama featuring the LeVays, an affluent African-American family that reads as a perfect blend of The Royals and The Huxtables. Over the course of a summer weekend at their Martha’s Vineyard vacation home, the plot unveils a whirlwind of long-kept secrets, scandalous betrayals, and dramatically convenient coincidences. When the two sons bring their respective girlfriends home to meet the rest of the family, racial tensions and insecurities clash with family drama and deceit.
The family patriarch, Dr. Joe LeVay (Alonzo Waller) is an imposing, demanding, and tone-deaf neurosurgeon. He entertains his two sons, Flip (Brandon White), an arrogant plastic surgeon and braggart, and Kent (J.R. Bradford) a dilettante and aspiring novelist, and their respective mates Kimber (Liz Millea) and Taylor (Kyndal Robertson). While Taylor is an outspoken grad student at John Hopkins studying entomology with a penchant for challenging societal norms (her field of study lends the metaphorical framework for the show’s title, even though this didn’t seem to get far off the ground with the audience). Kimber is a tender-hearted inner-city school teacher and intellectual. Oh, and she’s white. While her character enters as an assumed provocation, she actually serves to tone down the narrative with sensitivity and forced reflection.
Lastly, seemingly existing above and outside of these established dynamics, is Cheryl (Rachel Poole), daughter of the family’s housemaid filling in for the weekend while her ailing mother fights an ongoing bout with cancer. Poole was the creative standout for this viewer, with a deceptively ingratiating air about her character that is at once stoic, tragically vulnerable, and appropriately funny.
Diamond’s writing has her characters feeding boatloads of exposition in the early scenes, abruptly juxtaposed with tense flashpoints that drive the drama and plot. Notably, the fierce exchange between Taylor and Kimber over race and white guilt seems to happen out of nowhere. At first, I thought this was a matter of clumsy timing and delivery. However, the more I pondered it, the more natural this exchange seems to be. In real life, it often only takes one poorly organized sequence of innocuous words to form a potent catalyst for debate, and I have to believe that the players used the writing as an opportunity to capture that fragility.
If I maintain this point of view in reflection of the entire production, there are far more endearing moments to be found than originally thought. At first, I wondered if Diamond’s goal was a facsimile of Tyler Perry’s racially pandering formula, inaccurately delivered with confused rhythms and timing; but the bombardment of ridiculous, albeit predictable, plot points can be forgiven when considering the brutal honesty that is this script. There are uncomfortable moments of vulnerability that beg for reconciliation, even concerning the assumed villain, Dr. LeVay, and not all of these moments are neatly wrapped up with a bow. I appreciate how this production allows for some of the poignant points of tension and conflict to hang in the air and exist naturally, without forcing resolution. Even as the curtain falls, one has to question, “Wait, but what next?” on many of the central issues.
I suppose this is how the work serves its social purpose. Hailey writes in her director’s notes, “If there is one thing I would like someone to take away from this show, it would be ‘it’s OK.’” On its surface, Stick Fly seems like a show with a message for black people, and perhaps at one point in history, it was. I would, however, caution theatergoers to check their mindsets and perspectives before venturing to downtown Fort Worth for this production.
To interact with this dramedy for the sole sake of catharsis in this day and age would be a disservice to the playwright, to the director and players, to the overall mission of Jubilee Theatre, and most importantly, to yourself. Instead, I challenge you to consider how art reflects life, and give weight to the subtle nuances that drive home Hailey’s goal: “It’s OK.”
It’s OK that sometimes we feel awkward. It’s OK that sometimes we feel angry. It’s OK that sometimes we don’t fully understand those who look and think differently from us. It’s OK, as long as we decide, together, to continue trying.