A review of “Stick Fly,” by Lydia R. Diamond — the opening play in the Intiman Theatre Festival’s 2016 season saluting black female writers — which tells the story of a wealthy family torn apart by secrets and open confrontation.
In the casual-chic comfort of the LeVay family vacation house near Cape Cod, all is not light and breezy this summer. Tensions bristle between adult sons, one a plastic surgeon and the other a promising novelist, and their overbearing physician father. Add in strain between the brothers’ visiting girlfriends, and the daughter of the family’s longtime maid, and you’ve got trouble — trouble right here in Martha’s Vineyard.
The template for Lydia R. Diamond’s bulky, vivacious seriocomedy “Stick Fly,” which opens the 2016 Intiman Festival curated by Valerie Curtis-Newton, applies to countless other modern American dramedies wherein family reunions become soul-baring encounters and blame sessions, rather than idylls of leisure.
What distinguishes the LeVays? Their status and specific concerns as highly educated, affluent African Americans — a milieu that broke through on TV with “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s and lately in new series with successful African-American professionals as protagonists (ShondaLand’s “Scandal” and Fox’s “Empire”).
by Lydia R. Diamond. Through June 19, Intiman Theatre Festival at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $20-$40 (206-441-7178 or intiman.org).
Mainstream theater has been slower to explore the middle-class-to-wealthy African-American demographic — which, despite persistent race-based social and financial inequities, now makes up about 30 percent of the U.S. black population (according to the 2010 census). But their stories are as complex and distinctive, and as stageworthy, as those of lower-income African Americans that are enacted on regional and Broadway stages.
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Buoyantly comic, and heavily backloaded with conflicts and confrontations, “Stick Fly” is the rare play in this vein to reach Broadway (for a hot minute, in 2011). And it’s telling that the Intiman fest — devoted this year to productions, readings and discussions of works by black women playwrights — opens with this script, an example of diversity-within-diversity.
“Stick Fly” is spread across the gleaming kitchen and Afrocentric art-laden living room of the LeVays’ home (designed by Andrea Bryn Bush), a pad on Martha’s Vineyard, where elite black families have summered since the late 1800s.
Well-stocked with booze and food, the place is also overstocked with secrets, fibs and melodramas waiting to happen. While black teenager Cheryl (Amara Granderson) anxiously subs as housekeeper for her ailing mother, the mild-mannered writer Kent (Tyler Trerise) arrives with his exuberant fiancée, Taylor (Chantal DeGroat), an entomologist with political and personal grievances aplenty. They’re joined by Kent’s cavalier older brother Flip (Reginald Andre Jackson) and his white (or “melanin-challenged”) paramour, inner-city educator Kimber (a wry, astute Bhama Roget).
But sparks don’t fly until the LeVay patriarch enters to instantly rule the roost. In the textured portrayal by G. Valmont Thomas, this is a commanding, smug and evasive father. He can suck the oxygen out of a room — that is, whatever’s left after the prolix Taylor isn’t excoriating her absent father, unfair treatment in Ivy League schools and Kimber’s white liberalism.
In an obnoxious way, Taylor raises valid points. So do others in verbal sparring matches over matters of race, class, white privilege, lust, scandal and lousy parenting.
The characters are loosely strung, with the women more realized (and sassier) than the men. Their debates grow repetitive and rambling. Yet to Diamond’s credit they are also bracingly frank and lead to occasional flashes of mutual understanding.
Justin Emeka, the director, underscores in lively fashion Diamond’s flair for shrewd wisecracks and situational humor. But the mugging by Granderson and DeGroat needs calibrating, especially when “Stick Fly” piles on soap-opera-style back stories and emotional meltdowns.
And sound designer Matt Starritt’s infusions of soul and jazz classics (by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and more), while enjoyable and tone-setting, helped bloat the show to three hours on opening night.
The ensemble dynamic and pacing may well tighten up. And for all its excesses, “Stick Fly” does offer a candid, bracing look at African Americans for whom privilege is both blessing and burden.