The title of the play, ‘Stick Fly,’ currently in its area premiere at Jubilee Theatre, comes from a scientific method for observing hard-to-catch houseflies zipping around in flight. In effect, playwright Lydia R. Diamond is offering us her research notes on a rare study she’s done, observing the African-American elite, as spotted over a weekend visit at their home on Martha’s Vineyard.
It’s rare because well-to-do upper-bourgeois black families just don’t exist on stage much. TV, yes. Theater, no. So ‘Stick Fly’ presents an opportunity for some telling, satiric insights into the world of Jack and Jill (the African-American social organization for kids) and college ‘paper bag parties’ (if a black woman’s skin color is darker than a grocery bag, she’s not welcome).
The late A. R. Gurney was the quiet, American master of the white, upper-class social comedy – plays with relatives drily exchanging little barbs over Tanqs and tonics. While Diamond is definitely in Gurney’s territory of after-dinner drinks and comic social embarrassment, she’s upped the level of revelations into Tyler Perry soap opera land: infidelities, a mixed-race couple, a long-unacknowledged “outside child.”
At times, ‘Stick Fly’ lurches abruptly between humor and melodrama, between outrageous confrontation and polite chatter. Under Khira Hailey’s direction, one can feel the actors occasionally just shrug and go with it, as if to say, “There’s no credible way for me to say this and maintain an emotional throughline, but here goes.”
By the second act – that is, after the last major secret tumbles out – ‘Stick Fly’ doesn’t feel as contrived or borrowed-from-TV as it seems at first. It’s actually entertaining. And relatively thoughtful when it comes to black family members debating very real issues of class and family, feminism and colorism. Which one of these trumps the other and when?
As often happens with such family plays, we conveniently enter the Levay household with a newcomer: That way, we learn the family’s pecking order along with her. Taylor (Kyndal Robertson) should fit right in. She’s the new girlfriend who’s visiting with the younger son, Kent, a would-be novelist (J. R. Bradford). Her father was a renowned sociologist on race relations, so she checks off the boxes for brains, fame and activism. But unbeknownst to outsiders, daddy dumped her mother for a second wife, leaving Taylor to be raised by a single mom.
In short, she never had money or servants. And she’s a science nerd, an entomologist more comfortable with insects than humans (hence, the title). So Taylor has no idea how to act around the hired help. She finds the family’s casual displays of wealth unnerving. And when the other Levay brother’s white girlfriend (Liz Millea) presumes to pronounce on underprivileged African-American lives (she teaches in an inner-city school), Taylor unleashes her resentments in front of everyone. Apparently, making the nice lady feel publicly unwelcome is not considered the polite thing to do when everyone’s just met. Taylor is righteous and clueless and mortified, but one sometimes can’t tell if this is the playwright jerking things about to get all the exposition out or the actor trying to keep up with the shifts in tone.
But with this family, Taylor is hardly the only character feeling insecure – even the family patriarch does. Joe Levay (Alonzo Waller) is a successful neurosurgeon Yet the only reason he lives in a house on the Vineyard is his wife’s long-established family. So Joe may be every inch the college-educated, black professional, but he’s always felt like he’s seen as a social climber, he’s still trying to fulfill her high-maintenance, old-money expectations.
Just what defines black masculinity is familiar enough turf from August Wilson’s dramas and their father-son face-offs. As the father says in ‘Jitney’: ‘Got me a little house; it ain’t much, but it’s mine. I worked 26 years at the mill, got me a pension. I got respect. Now, what I ain’t got is a son that did me honor.” Add class expectations and a white woman, and you can see why no one really feels safe and solid in their position in ‘Stick Fly,’ not when it comes to financial success, parental approval or whether they’re up-to-date on the right racial or sexual codes. New rifts appear, alliances shift Can female solidarity trump racial differences? Would shopping help? Can an old affair with a woman come between the two brothers, Kent and Flip?
It turns out, at home, the Levay family’s discussions can be as WASPy as any Eisenhower-era rib roast: scotch, golf, fishing, good schools and why would any real man want to be a novelist?
On the other hand, the second act of ‘Stick Fly’ is generally more engaging, precisely because the characters must face the consequences of what everyone learned in the first act. Some of Diamond’s plot mechanisms are a little obvious (mom sure is taking her sweet time about showing up), but the conversations get into conflicts from an African-American perspective. When Flip, the ladies’ man, lives up to his name and shifts back and forth between women, one white, one black, is he struggling to retain prestige and sexual attraction, while avoiding commitment and not alienating his brother? Or is he still just stuck in daddy’s shadow?
Brandon White, who made such a chilling impression as an African warlord in Echo Theatre’s ‘Ruined,’ isn’t as ruthless here, but he gives Flip the style and assurance that money and a career as a plastic surgeon working with women might well bring. Yet Diamond doesn’t make Flip a sexist villain (not completely, at any rate). He has a heart; it’s just thoroughly underdeveloped. J. R. Bradford is a little bland as Kent, especially when this is a man who, as his father sardonically points out, was “paid to get a law degree, a business degree and a master’s in sociology.” You’d think Kent wouldn’t just be pleased or proud his first novel was bought. Feeling both relief and desperation would be more like it, along with the urge to tell his old man where he can stick his disapproval. As the father, Alonzo Waller is absolutely rock solid. But then, Joe Levay’s pretty much a rock when it comes to revealing anything too personal.
As the housekeeper’s daughter, Cheryl (Rachel Poole) has a pivotal role. But like Taylor, Cheryl’s a tangle of conflicting impulses and emotions that are hard to parse out, scene by scene. She’s actually filling in for her mother, who’s ill. She’s working-class but she’s earned a scholarship to the kind of school the Levays attend. And she basically grew up with the brothers but isn’t their equal. Poole makes her clearly, touchingly troubled but not fully realized. Her resentment of Taylor’s well-intentioned efforts at helping seems to come out of nowhere, for instance – unless we’re meant to see that as the unspoken tensions between one working-class woman who knows her place in this house and another who doesn’t.
Cheryl embodies much of what everyone’s arguing about here – black class structure, sexual attitudes, families – but the housekeeper’s daughter remains something of a cypher. Cheryl’s a little like ‘Stick Fly’ itself: Despite the pumped-up discoveries and comic agitation, the play and its characters can feel like the outline for an essay rather than a flesh-and-blood play. Yet it’s precisely those arguments, articulated by the kinds of elite African-American characters we typically don’t see onstage, that make it interesting.