Stick Fly is the first performance of the 2016 Intiman Theatre Festival, which focuses on the work of black American women playwrights. Valerie Curtis-Newton, winner of a Stranger Genius Award, teamed up with Intiman to curate the festival. Her selections showcase an array of aesthetics among new and established playwrights. They also highlight older plays that deserve more attention.
"[The festival] is like the many facets of the diamond, in that you get to see a lot of different perspectives," Curtis-Newton told me by phone. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Curtis-Newton said she picked Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly to kick off the festival because the play is set in contemporary times and because it may serve as a good "bridge" for Intiman's audience, which, from my perspective at least, skews old and white.
Stick Fly might make a good "bridge" to this audience for several reasons. It's a play about an affluent black family, which is a rare sight on the stage if not a rare sight on TV (The Jeffersons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show), and audience members who didn't scrunch their face at the price of a $40 premium ticket to see the show ($20 nonpremium tickets are available to all) might more readily identify with some of the story's class issues.
The play also runs like an Advanced Topics on Social Discourse seminar, one that focuses on less obvious forms of racism, classism, and sexism, with a special emphasis on the effects of racism against wealthy black people. If you don't really get what all this hubbub about "intersectionality" and "microaggressions" is, or if you haven't been paying much attention to the way people have been talking about race for the last 10 years, then this play will help you explore the emotional underpinnings that have spurred much of the conversation. More abstractly, the play is about the limits of forgiveness, the debt owed to parents, and the million other reasons you might not have a great relationship with your father.
"[Stick Fly] got mixed reviews in New York. They weren't unwarranted," Curtis-Newton said. "But it's worth it. The questions the play raises are worth it."
I agree with the mixed reviews and with Curtis-Newton. The play is a long, racially charged soap opera with a well-made structure and a sitcom vibe. The setup: An affluent black family meets for a small reunion at an estate on Martha's Vineyard. The house was built by the Whitcombs, a family who made money shipping slaves, or so the dad (G. Valmont Thomas), a successful doctor who married into that family and who now owns the house, implies.
To this gathering, younger brother and burgeoning novelist Kent (Tyler Trerise) brings home for the first time his fiancé Taylor (Chantal DeGroat), a slightly nerdy, self-assertive, funny, people-pleasing entomologist with abandonment issues due to her academic-famous father leaving her and her mother to scrounge out a lower-middle-class existence. The older brother, a prosperous plastic surgeon named Flip (Reginald André Jackson), brings home a white woman (Bhama Roget) who works with schools populated primarily by poor kids of color. Cheryl (Amara Granderson), the college-bound daughter of the family's housekeeper, has been hired on to take care of domestic duties, a job she finds fulfilling for now and doesn't really mind because it allows her to explore her crush on Flip.
The script's great strength is its humor, which expertly combines the mundane with the deeply disturbing. Characters reveal huge, life-altering family secrets and explain where the family keeps the egg cups in the same breath.
Though the piece is a true ensemble, a large chunk of the story is Taylor's, and DeGroat walks the line between being annoying and charmingly weird, a path familiar to many science-types who begin every other sentence with the phrase "Well, actually..." Taylor's emotions swing from pugilistic to vulnerable to sensual, sometimes all within the same monologue, and DeGroat makes those transitions seemingly effortlessly. The No Surprise This Person Was Great Award is a tie between Roget—whose comedic timing was perfect—and Thomas, whose commanding bellow shook the stage. Granderson's magnetic presence made watching her turn from a happy-go-lucky person into a emotional bomb victim all the more painful.
If you're really into long, somewhat predictable family dramas with tons of cringe-inducing social situations and miscommunications that lead to accidental revelations of deep family secrets (and you don't mind Langston Hughes Performing Art Institute's lack of air conditioning), then this play will not disappoint. If you don't have that kind of time right now, be sure to make time to check out some of the other Intiman Theatre Festival events this summer. Seeing the work of this many black women artists in this short period of time is a rare opportunity.