Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly is a rambunctious rumble covering social and cultural territory usually not acknowledged, explored or appreciated. Lauded for its in-your-face arguments, honest observations, and “tell-it-like-it-is” style, it tackles stereotypes by exploding them from the inside out. Stick Fly provides a behind-the-scenes look at family dynamics when the tables are turned, putting a spotlight on the upper crust, who happen to be black, where no dream need be deferred that a hefty bankroll can’t fix.
The LeVay family has gathered for a weekend at its summer home in Martha’s Vineyard and gets more than they bargained for as family secrets that have festered over the years finally begin to poke their way to the surface. What happens to a secret deferred is the new question.
Wendell W. Wright is a Washington treasure and it’s great to catch him back on stage, holding forth as a crusty time-worn “Big Daddy” Joe LeVay, dispensing fatherly admonishments with a booming voice and solid stance that can make you forget to blink and breathe. The two sons are played by veteran actors Billy Eugene Jones as older plastic surgeon brother Flip and Jason Dirden as Kent; when both bring their intended love interests into the family fold, let the fireworks begin.
As Flip, Jones drips with such “full of hisself” arrogance that he’s almost insufferable. His only sense of humanity peeks out when he comes to the defense of his younger brother during a browbeating tirade by the ever strong willed dad LeVay. Aside from that, Flip is full of sarcastic remarks, bombastic rhetoric, and inflated boasts about his own sexual prowess. Jones plays him with just enough strength balanced with smug disdain for everything that doesn’t hover in his self-centered orbit. As younger floundering brother Kent, Dirden darts about with the uneasiness of someone unsure of himself in the world. He’s graduate degree rich but career poor and seeks acceptance for finally finding his calling as a novelist, but withers under the elder’s rebukes. All the money in the world can’t put these brothers back together again.
Last seen here in the remarkable In the Continuum which she co-wrote, Nikkole Salter plays the volatile entomologist Taylor, fiancée to “Spoon,” her play name for Kent. Salter approaches the role with thoughtful yet tireless zeal. That kind of energy is needed because Taylor is packed with enough emotional explosives to detonate the vineyard and her fuse is short when it comes to tolerating liberal white girl dribble that she gets first hand from Flip’s love interest, Kimber, played with carefree panache by Rosie Benton. The sparks fly from the onset when these two spar like Trojans. The writing crackles under the heat of long-stoked embers when Taylor finally goes off in a name-calling, finger-pointing meltdown that’s been years in the making. Her subliminal self-talk is evident when afterwards she asks sheepishly “Did I say that out loud?” Oh, yes, she did, and it’s out there for everybody to digest.
Cheryl, the “maid’s” daughter is on an upwardly mobile, collegiate-bound academic track, and has friend of the family status having essentially grown up with the LeVay brothers while her Mom was housekeeping. However, now that she’s filling in for an ailing Mom as service, she constantly has to rebuff remarks about her intellectual astuteness while simultaneously claiming her functions as housekeeper. Amber Iman plays the character with too much bounce in the first act, without a hint of connecting with the extraordinary emotional and motivational range that the character is dealing with, an obvious director’s choice that’s hard to fathom. As Cheryl, Iman delivers lines about her mom being sick like she’s out shopping for groceries and shakes off the social abrasions with a nonchalant shrug. She toughens up in the second act, however, when secrets about the family start to emerge and helps to settle the wayward emotions with a commanding delivery.
The play consists of huge jumbles of puzzle pieces that reveal bits and pieces at a time. It’s entertaining to watch because of the true-life family dynamics that are implied within a situation comedy framework. The emotions seem real at the time, but evaporate into thin air without a hint at resolution. Playwright Lydia Diamond builds up tension, and the dialog crackles with fireworks and a fair share of surprises throughout, but she’s working with so much material, trying to explain cultural references and expository explanations, that the connects and disconnects between the characters get short shrift. The interactions seem more like drive-bys, even sometimes quick afterthoughts, instead of deeply felt experiences.
What’s lacking is a depth and breadth to the characters that make you care for them – you know them, may even see segments of them in your own lives, but they feel stilted rather than three-dimensional. Award winning director Kenny Leon has a masterful touch and is a premiere director for August Wilson’s plays, but goes for the laugh-track comedy sketch mode here. The result is somewhat confusing at times when the highly dramatic moments don’t have an anchor, the characters, who don’t have much layering or shading, deliver poignant punch lines, or share intense emotional moments then bounce to the next scene as if nothing has transpired.
Despite the character-lite treatment, the play successfully presents issues that resonate throughout today’s multicultural, multitasking, high achieving society. Its strength is two-fold — the brute honesty of characters who say what’s on their minds no matter what the consequences, and bringing attention to class struggles within the black community. The LeVays have Audi’s and Bentleys and Pradas to spare, but issues of self esteem, self-worth and identity run amok. There’s a palpable gasp in the audience when the white girlfriend, Kimber, automatically assumes that Taylor who answers the door is the housekeeper. Similar reactions are evoked when Taylor, in her attempts to learn names and relationships, labels Cheryl as the maid. Diamond helps to expose the dichotomy that exists in language and class and labels, including the associated baggage and ramifications that accompany their use, no matter how well intended.
The set, designed by David Gallo, is a marvel of multiple layers showing the classic tastes of the well bred, from the kitchen’s latest appliances to the gorgeous chandelier in the foyer, front porch seating area, a well tended tree-lined passage on the left and the grand goyer entrance on the right with a staircase to the upper floor. Each area also serves as a ready exit for family and friends to assemble, then escape when the going gets hot. The set also has a fascinating jazzy riff with an oblong cut out shape separating the front room from the kitchen, and books and art work alike slant in a funky lean accordingly. Allen Lee Hughes does a yeoman’s task with gorgeous lighting depicting various times of the day including pre-dawn and silhouetting the avant guard paintings. Finally, sound design by Timothy J. Thompson adds a popping fresh jazzy soundtrack fit for the Blue Note.
Diamond is a gifted writer with an ear for language with her finger on the pulse of America’s ever socially progressive heartbeat. It’s no surprise that Stick Fly is sweeping the country as a popular go-to script. It hits a raw nerve (or two) and articulates aspects of the cultural divide that are usually overlooked, discounted and even unseen. The play’s patchwork emotional grid and bumpy pacing are more than balanced by the energetic and appealing attempt to set the record straight and do the right thing, right.
Written by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Kenny Leon
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2:30 hours w/ one intermission