"Stick Fly" playwright finds Oak Bluffs atmosphere refreshing
Photo by Debbie Grant
On Monday Americans will celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. As the nation continues to work toward the goals Mr. King articulated, Martha's Vineyard and Oak Bluffs, a summer resort destination with a well established black resort community, provide tangible examples of his dream of racial harmony.
Acclaimed playwright and Martha's Vineyard summer visitor Lydia Diamond said that Oak Bluffs is unique. "I was struck the first time we went there by the social ease," Ms. Diamond told The Times in a telephone interview last week.
Ms. Diamond is the author of "Stick Fly." The central focus of the play currently enjoying a run at the Cort Theater on Broadway is an African-American family vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. Ms. Diamond said the play deals with "race and class and family dynamics."
The Huffington Post's Lonna Saunders praised the Broadway production, writing, "Playwright and Northwestern University-educated Lydia Diamond is pitch perfect in capturing how people of different backgrounds and cultures think, speak and just all try to get along."
Ms. Diamond, a professional woman and mother of a young son, laid no unique claim to the Vineyard. "I always want to make it clear that I in no way have the kind of ownership that Vineyarders have," she said. "I go there in the summer."
Ms. Diamond first visited the Island in 2004 after her family relocated to Cambridge when her husband was offered a job at Harvard. The couple began visiting friends who had a home in Chilmark.
Her work on "Stick Fly" predates her first visit. She said she chose Martha's Vineyard as the location for her fictional affluent family's vacation home partly because of the location.
"I liked the idea of setting it on an Island. There was more of a feeling of being trapped," she said. That thought dovetails nicely with the tagline of the play: "When it comes to family — you're stuck."
Ms. Diamond said that although she and her family stay in Chilmark, they spend plenty of time in Oak Bluffs.
"I'd spent most of my childhood and adult life vacationing in tropical places — St. Thomas, Paradise Island. I remember distinctly — on a beach full of primarily Europeans — sometimes having the sense of intangible things that happen around race, being made aware that my presence is inconveniencing visitors who felt they had spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and didn't expect to see African Americans in anything but service positions."
Contrasting that experience with her time on the Vineyard, she said, "I find the racial dynamic refreshing. I was always made to feel so welcomed."
Ms. Diamond said she was concerned that people would think her setting was influenced by the Obamas' connection to the Island, but she wrote "Stick Fly" before the Vineyard made national headlines as the president's vacation spot. However, she is pleased with the attention that the first family's visits have drawn to the Vineyard. "In some ways it has lent a little credibility to people around the country of the legitimate history that African Americans have had on Martha's Vineyard," she said.
Ms. Diamond praises the Vineyard as an ideal place to visit with kids, noting that she was impressed by seeing young teenagers on their own. "This may be one of the last places that young people can have that freedom," she said.
She compared visiting the Island to a family reunion. "What we have found is that whenever we are on the beach [the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs] we run into people that we know from other areas of our life. We run into colleagues, actors, professors at Harvard. It feels like a very, very small world."
"Stick Fly" was presented as a reading at the Vineyard Playhouse in 2010. Ms. Diamond says Playhouse artistic director M.J. Munafo "has always been hugely supportive." The two have been in discussions on producing a full scale production at the Playhouse. Ms. Diamond says, "I always hope for a production on the Vineyard some day."
Ms. Diamond hopes her latest work will help to introduce the image of the affluent black family into the public consciousness. Of her play, which she describes as dealing with "race and class and family dynamics," she says, "we don't often get to see black people on stage in contemporary settings."
The family drama marks the producing debut of multiple Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, who also supplied original music for the production. Directed by Kenny Leon, the cast is made up of an ensemble of actors known for their work in popular TV shows.
"Stick Fly" is among three works by African American playwrights currently on Broadway. The other two are "Mountaintop," a play about Martin Luther King Jr. by Katori Hall and Suzan Lori Parks's adaptation of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess."
"Images of African Americans as affluent is something that we don't see all the time on TV and especially on the stage," Ms. Diamond says. "That might sound shocking in a Vineyard paper, but to somebody in Wyoming or Ohio, there are people who are not touched by those images in their real lives. There are people in middle America — and there still are people — who thought that the Cosby family was fictional."
A back story in "Stick Fly" involves the original owner of the family's summer home – a wealthy sea captain ancestor. There are certainly parallels in this character to a figure in the Island's African American history, Captain William A. Martin, a black master of whaling ships from the Vineyard in the 1800s.
"I didn't know that story until well after I'd written my play and realized my fictional back story had some more historical resonance," Ms. Diamond said.
Despite the obvious Vineyard connections, the play is not meant to be a Vineyard story about any particular individual or town. "In my mind it's a place a lot like Edgartown, but it was important to me not to set this fictional play in a real place," she said.
Ms. Diamond encourages Vineyarders to see the play this month. "January is a tight time for all plays. It would be great for people to see it in January so we can have full houses," she said.
The play's run is open-ended but, as with all but the big-name Broadway shows, attendance is the crucial determiner of a show's run. For more information go to www.StickFlyBroadway.com.