Of Bugs and Family

The setup to Lydia Diamond’s new play Stick Fly follows a comfortable theatrical formula: a well-to-do Black family meets up in Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly for an ordinary get-together, but in fact to lay themselves bare and hash out decades-old resentments and secrets.  Kent “Spoon” LeVay (Dulé Hill), the youngest in the family, shows up with the manuscript to his first novel as well as his entomologist fiancé, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), who happens to have slept, six years ago, with his older brother, Flip (Mekhi Phifer).  Flip, in turn, has brought his new squeeze, Kimber (Rosie Benton), a white teacher who minored in African-American studies as an undergraduate.  All compete for the attention and approval of the family patriarch, neurosurgeon Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who has a suspicious relationship with the family maid’s daughter, Cheryl (Condola Rashad).  The mother remains conspicuously absent and the result is something like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but with Parcheesi instead of whiskey.

Though Stick Fly doesn’t take any big risks or attempt to pioneer any new theatrical conventions, it does a successful job of following the tradition of the well-made play: the characters are carefully constructed, the pace never lags, and the dialogue is sharp—each act ends with a zinger.  Most importantly, for a drama that treads dangerously close to Tyler Perry territory—Cheryl’s mother is dying of cancer, Flip seems interested in briefly reaffirming his womanizing skills by seducing Taylor—Ms. Diamond is always sure not to take herself or her characters too seriously.  Melodramatic and didactic moments (or, as one character puts it, when things get “Jerry Springer insane”) are often undercut by a good joke.

Furthermore, Stick Fly succeeds in a balancing act that could topple a lesser playwright: Ms. Diamond, endlessly political, pries into a multitude of economic, racial, and gendered issues that plague her characters.  Taylor, who comes from a middle-class family, is constantly trying to buddy up and equate herself with Cheryl, apologizing and thanking excessively without realizing how condescending she can be; meanwhile, Flip lies and insists that Kimber is not “white” but “Italian,” leading both his brother and his father, in an effort to prove that they hold no prejudice, to each greet her with an overcompensating, boisterous, “Bonjourno, bella!”  Spoon, for his part, has to deal with both Flip and Joe’s disparaging attitude towards what they consider a feminine emotionalism.  Ms. Diamond even gets in a few cracks at meaningless literary babble: Kimber, trying to ingratiate herself to Spoon, applauds the amazing imagery of his novel and his use of landscape as a metaphor.  And while each issue may be spread a bit thin, it is nice to see them addressed intelligently.

Ms. Diamond, too, is aided by a mostly strong cast.  Mr. Santiago-Hudson is effective in playing a vacillating combination of his two sons: he is sensitive and charitable like Spoon, but there is a darkness as well that reminds us of Flip, a raw but sheathed masculinity whose potential to break out at any moment keeps everyone else on their toes.  Ms. Thoms also stands out: a speech in which she raves against liberal, collegiate feminism—that is, a class populated by “eight white girls named Becky”—is particularly moving.  But Mr. Hill (most famous for playing the recipient of white paternalism in The West Wing) is about as flat as he’s always been; he says the lines he’s given but not much else.

The central metaphor of the play is that in the entomological analysis of the movements of houseflies, the insect is glued to a stick and filmed as its shadow reacts to objects in front of a projector. The insect is then thrown away; it is the film, ultimately, that is studied.  Such studies have shown that the movements of houseflies are more sophisticated than any human technology involving flight, and therefore the implications for air travel are tremendous.  Indeed, Stick Fly houses issues far larger than the play that contains them—its unvoiced implications for racial, social, and sexual justice extend far beyond the stage—but like the housefly with aerodynamics, it has distilled them to something small, manageable, and in this case, entirely entertaining.

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