Theater : The buzz of "Stick Fly"
For the last several years, theatergoers across the country have shared a dramatic weekend on Martha's Vineyard through the sharp eyes and pen of African-American playwright Lydia R. Diamond. Her play, "Stick Fly," premiered in 2006 as a presentation of Congo Square Theatre Company in Chicago and has gone on to receive critical acclaim in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and Princeton, N.J. It is currently in production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and is scheduled to make its Boston debut at the Huntington Theatre Company's Wimberly Theatre from February 19 to March 2010.
The Vineyard, with its long and rich history as a home and gathering place for African-Americans, has made its mark worldwide as a vacation destination for U.S. presidents as well as dignitaries from other countries. Ironically, "Stick Fly" was, as the playwright says, "born on the cusp of all that," and was derived wholly from her imagination.
Critics have heralded Ms. Diamond's portrayal of the fictitious LeVays, an affluent black family whose ancestors were the first African American landowners on the Island.
The drama takes place during an early summer weekend gathering at the family home. While dust covers protect the furniture as the play opens, they don't mask the opulence of the LeVays' lifestyle: rich woodwork, a spacious living room with grand foyer, a valuable original art collection, a floor-to-ceiling library, and a costly view of the sea.
As family members find their way home, they bring more baggage than can possibly fit in their trunks. The youngest son, Kent, armed with a series of advanced degrees but no career to show for it, returns brandishing the galleys for his soon-to-be-published novel. He is accompanied by his fiancé, Taylor, intellectual and sharp-tongued, a graduate student in entomology, who has yet to meet the parents. His older brother, Flip - GQ-handsome, a successful plastic surgeon and unapologetic womanizer - enters shortly after, announcing that his latest girlfriend, Kimba, will also be joining them. And, by the way, he adds, she's white - a fact that the sons are sure will rock the precariously balanced family boat. The LeVays' long-time housekeeper's daughter, Cheryl, makes her appearance, uncovering both the furniture and the family's most carefully guarded secret. Finally, Dr. LeVay, the patriarch, a neurosurgeon with his own set of "luggage," arrives, cruelly derisive of his younger son, flirtatious with the women, and defensive about his flaws as a man.
If it sounds as though Ms. Diamond has a full plate with her cast of over-achieving, conflicted characters, the playwright somehow manages to avoid soap operatic devices with witty, intelligent dialogue. And, while there is a great deal of family tension among the LeVays, she reaches far beyond the home front to tackle larger race, gender, and social alienation issues.
Critics have heralded Ms. Diamond's focus on affluent African Americans, an often overlooked demographic. "It's not a deliberate political act," she says. "I put people I know on stage - the rooms I find myself in and the conversations I have. Dorothy West was writing about these people years ago. Black people are thirsty for another way of seeing ourselves. The Vineyard's strong African American history made it a natural setting."
M.J. Bruder Munafo, producer and artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven, reports that "everyone in the world" has been contacting her about "Stick Fly." She says that she is a huge fan of Ms. Diamond's work and has met with her to discuss the play.
"The Playhouse would love to perform it," Ms. Munafo says, "but we've approached Ms. Diamond's agent on several occasions and have not yet received permission." Both she and Ms. Diamond remain optimistic that "Stick Fly" will land on the Vineyard sometime in the future.
"Stick Fly" is available in print and audio formats bookstores.
Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Times.