There’s a Fly in the Ointment

16 Jan

Reuben Santiago-Hudson (Joseph LeVay) and Tracie Thoms (Taylor)

Shortly after Christmas, I had the fortune to see Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, currently running at the Cort Theatre on West 48th St. The play centers around a vacation sojourn to the LeVay summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays the LeVay patriarch, father to Kent/”Spoon” (Dulé Hill), and Flip (Mekhi Phifer), all strong personalities that are tested and revealed when thrown together with equally opinionated and feisty fiancés and girlfriends—Tracie Thoms (Taylor) and Rosie Benton (Kimber). The brood have gathered for the usual escape from the city, and all should go well except for a few twists: Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the housekeeper’s daughter, is filling in to attend to the family’s every whim, and  Mrs. LeVay is nowhere to be found. Furthermore, the arrival of newcomers should be no biggie, after all the LeVays are civilized middle class African-Americans who are used to socializing with a plethora of demographics.

The play, in a nutshell, accomplishes what Tyler Perry has been trying to do since the onset of his career and at which he has consistently failed. Now this may seem like an insult, considering that nature of Tyler Perry productions and the obvious assessment that a successful version of one may still not be much of anything at all. However, where Tyler Perry fails—lack of plausibility, a consistently obvious minstrel figure (or two), unrealistic dialogue/plot arc/action, an almost obsessive play on black stereotypes…should I go on?—Diamond echews and triumphs. Yes, some archetypes rear their heads: the angry black woman, the sassy ghetto-tongued teen—and that is not to say that these archetypes debase the art in which they appear—but they have to be done realistically, and with temperance, as in the case with Stick Fly. That will then serve as the gateway for humour and humanity.

The stage design was especially nifty in presenting the multifaceted nature of the interaction between the occupants of the house, with an almost split stage that allowed for simultaneous scenes between different character groups. It heightened the difference between the action behind the closed doors of the kitchen (not ironically Cheryl’s domain and primary base), and the wide expanse of the opulent living room. The patio, off the kitchen, served as a virtual Switzerland, a neutral zone where tension could be reconciled and the anger volumes could get turned down a bit.

The cast (L-R):- Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Condola Rashad (the show stealer for me personally), Mekhi Phifer, Rosie Burton, Tracie Thoms, and Dulé Hill

Diamond, like a Zora Neale Hurston or a Toni Morrison, hits the nail on the head of race relations, recognizing that they are not as extreme as Tyler Perry likes to imply, and they are also not as black and white (pun not intended) as the world would like to think. Black women are not divided into frigid rockets scientists, victims and big mammas, and black men are not just successful ballers (an upgrade from the pimp no less), UPS delivery men and jive-talking criminals. They are sometimes self-loathing (Taylor), creative (Kent/”Spoon”), intelligent on a number of levels (Joseph LeVay), have surprising and extensive interests and tastes (Flip/Cheryl), and don’t actually want to wallow in the burdensome sty of slavery’s legacy but sometimes just can’t help it (the entire cast, even Kimber).

Condola Rashad, as Cheryl

Light-skinned blacks vs dark-skinned blacks, middle vs working class, white-on-black charity vs black-on-black charity, single-mother parenting, affirmative action, dipping the pen in the family ink…Diamond covers all of it and more with grace, considerable humour, and just the right amount of pathos. To steal a concept from the 2006 film The Prestige, Diamond employs the three parts of a magic trick in the telling of the Stick Fly story. There’s “The Pledge”, the middle class black family with the domineering father, two Cane-and-Abel-esque figures for sons, one with a brainy, over-eager fiancé, and the other with a cool cucumber WASP who can give it as good as she gets it, and the second generation housekeeper with bigger plans. Classic Americana. In the second act, Diamond does “The Turn”, secrets are exposed, the white thread stitching together the black curtain is revealed (again, pun not intended), and things are not as cut and dry as they seemed in the beginning (again, Classic Americana). Diamond’s “Prestige” is that there is no resolution at the end, much like actual race relations. The parties involved just have to agree to disagree and recognize that the other isn’t going to budge, that rationale and principle as it relates to race are often never grounded in logic, but in buried shame, tradition, and revenge. Add to that a simple yet haunting original score by Alicia Keys, and Stick Fly is just about as good as Broadway gets: a real handling of real issues, uplifted by authentic comedy and a quiet genius.

Stick Fly

(Through to April 8, 2012)

138 West 48th Street
Between 6th and 7th Avenues

2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission

NY metro area (212) 239-6200
Everywhere else (800) 432-7250

Happy Race Relating,



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