By HOLLY BERETTO
Over a weekend in 2003, in a lushly modern Martha’s Vineyard summer home, six people need to untangle the web of race and class and family. Watching them do it in the Ensemble Theatre’s production of Stick Fly (through May 2) is a richly voyeuristic, thought-provoking experience.
Kent LeVay, an aspiring writer, is the younger son of the “Martha’s Vineyard LeVays,” a rich African-American family that traces its lineage back to the first black family to own land on the Vineyard, known even today for its status as a playground of the rich and famous – and mostly white. Taylor, his fiancé, is the illegitimate daughter of a famous professor and writer whose works include titles such as “Legacy of Rage” and “From the Middle Passage to the Inner City.” He meets her at her famous father’s funeral in 2002 (he’s a fan); a year later, he’s bringing her to the family vineyard home to meet his parents and brother.
Flip, Kent’s brother, is a plastic surgeon. And something of a cross between a womanizer and a commitment-phobe. At the moment, he’s dating Kimber, a white inner-city school teacher. They’re both getting off on being an interracial couple, thinking they are above the societal prejudices they endure when they see people looking at them with suspicion and barely concealed disapproval. As if all that weren’t enough, there’s Dad, a neurosurgeon and veracious reader, and Cheryl, the daughter of the family housekeeper, who this weekend is filling in as the family helpmeet because her mom is sick. And each of them brings a whole new string of baggage to the table.
Across two hours, their drama unfolds and peels back endlessly thoughtful layers about what it means to be successful, what love is, why family matters, the subtle lines in the sand of class and status. It’s your college sociology class with much better lighting. And it hits the marks on any number of levels. Playwright Lydia Diamond, a Waco native, writes with snappy dialogue that’s often funny and smart. Thoughtfully directed by Eileen J. Morris, a protogee of Ensemble founder George Hawkins, this is a play that is much less about black and white, and much more about who we think we are.
The acting is strong, if sometimes uneven. Kendrick Brown plays Kent with an easy grace and charm, never veering into overdone angst about his strained relationship with his father, never once playing the clichéd “tortured writer.” He moves through the role and across the stage with almost feline finesse in a pitch-perfect performance. Wayne DeHart grumbles and flirts and charms as Dad. He’s one of those actors who brings meaning to each motion, from something as simple as setting down a glass or even just lifting a finger. He plays a character who isn’t given much sympathy – but DeHart’s performance brings forth a completely believable humanity.
Estella Henderson has the tricky role of the trying-too-hard Taylor. She’s tried too hard to succeed in school. She’s trying too hard to be liked by the LeVays. Henderson mostly manages to make this seem natural and not cloying, and she’s got a gift for comic timing that’s delightful. Her counterpart, the other girlfriend of the weekend, Rachel Logue’s Kimber, isn’t trying too hard at much of anything. Except to overcome her own white-as-oppressor past. Logue offers a performance that’s equal parts sass and insight.
One of the best performances of the evening belongs to Florence Garvey in her Ensemble debut as Cheryl. For sure, she has the best monologue, in Act Two, about the obliviousness of the LeVays and the simple, cutting slights of society, and she delivers it in bravura style. And her comment, to Taylor, about how she’s had a room with the LeVays her at the Vineyard or in Aspen, about how “I’m not trying to find myself. This is my home,” is the most believable of the night.
The cast gets tripped up in the academic verbiage, though. Diamond’s written it a la the smartness of Aaron Sorkin, sprinkled with the kind of quick intelligent insider-terms you’d hear from a CSI franchise. It’s rapid fire, and it’s heady stuff: Weber’s theory of social dominance, the savage inequities of a broken educational system, the intricate vocabulary of entomology. These are words that are natural to these characters, that flow into easily into conversations that become debates that become means for insight. But they never quite sound natural from this cast, which has clearly mastered the words, without necessarily capturing the essence.
Yet Stick Fly more than delivers on so many other levels. The set is a soaring modern thing, and it’s easy to imagine that designer Winifred Sowell took into account the idea of this family renovating a 200-year-old weekend cottage. The massive window in the living room looks out against a blue sky, evoking the idea that th4e home sits on a bluff above the sea. Every inch of the stage is used, and the back porch set is particularly cozy and well-decorated. Sound designer Adrian Washington uses R&B-imbued instrumental riffs between scenes, and their elegance becomes one more telling characteristic of the LeVay clan.
Morris is at the top of her game in her direction here. Her steady hand and her commitment to stagecraft as telling the legacy of a people is spot-on. She moves her actors around the stage and into their own heads with a brilliant thoughtfulness.
While every show at the Ensemble is one that celebrates the writing and art of African-American theatre, they are also always about us as a society. They force us to think about race and class, about social justice and evolving philosophies. With its wit and poignancy, Stick Fly is both a tremendous addition to the African-American playwriting canon and a stunning evening at the Ensemble.