There was a lot of excitement when Arena Stage announced its production of Stick Fly. Tim and Lorraine had seen it at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival two years ago. Debbie moderated a discussion with Lydia at Footlights, the drama discussion group, last month, where I read the play and had the chance to meet and listen to Lydia speak. Thanks to them for collaborating with me on this article.
Lydia R. Diamond is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and Professor of Playwriting at Boston University. Her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye won critical acclaim in Washington when Theater Alliance performed it in 2006. She has also written Stage Black, The Gift Horse, Voyeurs et Venus and Harriet Jacobs, which opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts the night after Stick Fly‘s opening at Arena Stage. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and has taught playwriting at Columbia College Chicago, DePaul University, and Loyola University.
DCTS: The play had seen several productions before some of us were able to see it at the 2008 production at Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. Have you made changes since then?
Lydia: Because this is my fourth production, most changes were minor. I’d recently done a re-write for a reading in NY, and, after conversations with Kenny Leon, decided to go back to a version of the script which was more like one he’d read previously. Mostly finessing some moments that were timed for blocking purposes of a special production. Some minor adjustments for dialogue that fit into actors’ mouths more comfortably in a different way.
DCTS: Director Kenny Leon has spoken about how getting to know you has changed his understanding of Stick Fly. How has he influenced the play?
Lydia: Kenny has an incredible ear for dialogue, a great understanding of the psychological underpinnings of a scene, and a wonderful way with actors. Kenny encouraged my involvement in the rehearsal process, and I think in so doing, encouraged me to embrace the importance of trust in collaboration in a new way. I think Kenny and I share a similar aesthetic and so it was a pleasure to watch Kenny translate my intentions in ways I would not have imagined.
DCTS: Did the writing of Stick Fly come easily, compared to some of your other plays?
Lydia: Yes and no. It was a fun process, the writing of the first draft. I embarked on it because I was writing another play that was so emotionally disturbing, I wanted to ground myself in a lighter, family play, and experiment with the process of writing a traditional, “well-made play”, something I had not previously done. I found that with this kind of play, with a static set, an ensemble cast, the careful dissemination of character back-stories and some traditional plot conventions, the executing of it all was considerably more challenging than I’d have imagined. It’s funny, because when I’ve done it well, it all looks rather effortless, and structurally less sophisticated than some of my less conventional plays. This was not the case. I spent months manipulating the play, exits and entrances, which characters should know what, when, transitions between scenes, timeline specifics… it was a welcomed challenge… and very challenging nevertheless.
DCTS: In dealing with issues of family, dynamics, and class, were you influenced by Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun?
Lydia: I am sure that everything I have read informs my sense of what’s possible theatrically, not consciously so. I think of writers like Hansberry, Chekov, O’Neill, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, all masters of the form… and so how could they have not lodged themselves in my brain and influence the writing of this play…. As I’m sure Adrienne Kennedy, Derek Walcott, and Edward Albee inform another part of my aesthetic.
DCTS: What was your process in revealing the layers of each of the characters, getting to their essence, motivations, potential, and dreams?
Lydia: I spend a lot of time, months, years, getting to know my characters, having conversations with them in my mind, asking them questions when they are eluding me. It is out of an understanding of my characters’ dreams, wants, fears, flaws, gifts, and passions that I find the scene’s action…. When I know them well, they write the play, I just come in after and structure it.
DCTS: In the play, Kimber, a white woman, accuses Taylor, an African-American, of playing the victim. Do you believe that African-Americans in general think of themselves as victims, or is this just a common white perception about African-Americans?
Lydia: I’m not sure that I would agree with Kimber’s assessment of Taylor as playing the victim. I think Kimber is asking a sincere question, and trying to understand why, with all of Taylor’s obvious privilege, she sometimes identifies herself as a marginalized person. I think Taylor’s experiences, if for no other reason then because they are hers, here in a country where we do struggle with class and race, are legitimate. I would like to think that white people don’t perceive African Americans as self-proclaimed victims, just as I don’t think African Americans, as a whole, spend their time labeling whites as oppressors. It’s all so much more complicated than that.
DCTS: The ubiquitous role of Cheryl and her constantly changing status in the household depending on who’s she’s talking to and when is fascinating. What issues were you dealing with in tackling service and class struggles?
Lydia: The same issues I was dealing with everyone. Issues of identity around class and race are continually shifting depending on context and the world view of the people involved in an interaction. I think that it is interesting that the roles in this house, the power dynamics shift depending on circumstance… this is not only the way good drama is made, it is all the way of life. At least as I’ve experienced it.
DCTS: In several emotionally explosive scenes, the characters have their say and “go off.” In addition to letting off steam and telling it like it is, were they speaking for segments of society, giving a voice to usually unheard from segments of society?
Lydia: No. Characters are only ever speaking for themselves in a given moment.
DCTS: Do you suppose you would have written Stick Fly differently if you had written it after the election of President Obama? Or would his election have affected the dialogue between the characters had the play been set after the election?
Lydia: Absolutely. How can you have conversations about race and class and not acknowledge the Obama factor. Having said this, I don’t think the story would change… but certainly this is a play written before the Obama administration, simply because of its omission.
DCTS: Using the science of etymology, with its detached, unemotional framework, as a backdrop in studying the emotional dynamics of this family, even commandeering its title, is fascinating. Is there also a playful wink to “being a fly on the wall”?
Lydia: Yes. And to being an observed fly in a jar, on stick, or wherever… back to that shifting of power dynamics.
DCTS: What event in American history would you have wanted to be “a fly on the wall”?
Lydia: I’m so pleased to have missed the losses we suffered in the 1960’s, Malcolm, Martin, Kennedy, Kennedy…. The turbulence of the 60’s has formed my generation, but we missed it. I missed desegregation (sort of), rioting (sort of), Vietnam. It might have been nice to be a fly on the wall at Malcolm X’s house at a family dinner, I’d have liked to be at the signing of the Declaration of Independence… I’m a playwright.. there is nowhere I would not like to have been an invisible observer.
DCTS: As a professor of playwriting in several colleges, do you have any opinion about how the next generation of playwrights will be different than this one?
Lydia: We have insanely gifted playwrights coming along. They’re informed by a different set of values and realities, socialized by different rhythms and values in the media, communicating via twitters and Facebook and texting…. they’re inventing a different language for the telling of stories, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
DCTS: Stick Fly began at Chicago Dramatists. Tell us about them, and how they assisted you in developing the play.
Lydia: Chicago Dramatists gave me my identity as a playwright. It is there, in an organization that nurtures the development of new work, and centers around the needs of playwrights, that I learned to think of myself as a playwright, to submit scripts, to accept rejection gracefully, to be productive in my re-writing and development processes, to be a generous mentor, and a humble servant of the theatre. Russ Tutterow, the artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, is a great friend and has been a loving mentor to so many people.
DCTS: You’ve been compared to Lynn Nottage. Are there writers who have influenced your work? Who and how?
Lydia: That’s flattering. I think Lynn Nottage’s work is wonderful. She’s almost a contemporary, and so the degree to which she has influenced my voice is just in how terribly affirming it is to see good people work hard and get the kind of attention they deserve. I started writing plays before I thought of playwriting as a vocation. I’d approached text as a writer, and so did not go through phases of trying to emulate various voices… I found my own early. But I love the efforts of playwrights…. Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Richard Greenberg, José Rivera, Kia Corthron, Lynn Nottage, Suzan Lori Parks, Pearl Cleage, Adrienne Kennedy, Sara Ruhl. I’m loving watching Terrel Alvin McCraney’s work getting embraced [In the Red and Brown Water is now at Studio Theatre]…. On and on it goes. It’s hard work and anyone who does it with love, and dedication, and risk is inspiring to me.
DCTS: We understand that you are currently working on a play based on Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. What can you tell us about it?
Lydia: It was born at Steppenwolf’s theatre for young adults, in a collaboration with Hallie Gordon (director), McKinley Johnson (Composer/Musical arranger), and Lisa Willingham Johnson (choreographer). It is now having its second production at Underground Railway Theatre Company in Cambridge Mass., directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, where it is enjoying a critically acclaimed run and great audiences. The script has also been developed a bit sense the Chicago production, and I think feels like a more complete story.
DCTS: What advice would you give students and writers who are considering a career as a playwright?
Lydia: Write. Don’t let others define you. Don’t look outside of yourself for “career” affirmation. Write the plays, put them in the world… produce them yourself, have readings at your house… keep sending them out… and don’t care what happens after that. Just keep writing. Write well, hear the comments of others, incorporate those which resonate, put the play before your own ego… it all works out.
DCTS: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Arena Stage after experiencing Stick Fly?
Lydia: I’d like for them to have had a satisfying evening of theatre… to feel that the babysitter, the price for tickets, the gas to the theatre, was all worth it. To have interesting conversations on the way home, and if I’ve really done my job, perhaps at breakfast the next morning.
Debbie Jackson’s review of Stick Fly at Arena Stage
Tim Treanor’s review of Stick Fly at CATF
For more information about Stick Fly, and to purchase tickets, click here.