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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Did we happen to mention that the LeVays are African American and descendents of the oldest free landowners on toney Martha's Vineyard? Flip (played by Terrell Tilford) is a plastic surgeon, a chip off the old something of his neuro-surgeon dad Joseph (John Wesley) who goes by Dr. LeVay. Younger son Kent (Chris Butler) possesses a law degree, an MBA and — his displeased dad hastens to remind — no discernible ambition. Kent does, however, own the family diffidence. It's not quite as pronounced, but it's there.
The LeVays have a long-time domestic, also black, who they're not too progressive to label a maid. She's sick this particular weekend, but has sent her whip smart 18 year-old-daughter, Cheryl (Tinashe Kajese) to cook and clean in her stead. John Iacovelli has transformed the often limited Matrix stage to upscale opulent effect. Everything about this setting screams Eastern Seaboard wealth.
In Lydia K. Diamond's bumpy but never dull play, the LeVays get stuck under anthropological glass (a la the titular bug) during a secrets-bearing and resentment-airing weekend from hell. Director Shirley Jo Finney, who also helmed the play's east coast premiere at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre (see review link) ), isn't so much looking to make us squirm, boil or laugh— though Stick Fly has discomfort and humor aplenty — as she is to put some interesting specimens on dramatic display. Revelations are dropped, not detonated. We are expected to take sides, to choose an allegiance even when doing so is rarely easy.
Kicking off a new multi-cultural minded season at the Matrix, Stick Fly is a play of ideas certainly, but also of one character's rocky identity quest. And it is, finally, a love story. Diamond has a way with character, and Finney's cast is, to a person, superb.
If the LeVays are a closed society, then the intrusion of outsiders figures to signal the play's conflict. Flip has brought a white girlfriend, Kimber (Avery Clyde) who comes from money, works with inner city kids, and doesn't give a fig leaf how people perceive her or her boyfriend. No "Guess Who" situation here, Kimber fits right in among the LeVays.
Not so Kent's fiancee, Taylor Bradley Scott (Michole Briana White) who, despite being black and the daughter of an important social anthropologist, is no child of privilege. Trying desperately both to please her future in-laws and to stay true to her values, Taylor runs afoul of Kimber, then Flip, and Cheryl positively can't stand her. Taylor's Gibraltar-sized chip and an incident from her past threatens to scotch the course of true love for Taylor and Kent. Kent, meanwhile, has issues of his own. After a lifetime of hearing his dad brand him as a gadabout failure, Kent's about to publish his first novel which he has dedicated to Taylor.
White's is a challenging role, and a tough assignment. The actress never lets the character's lingering discomfort slide into easy humor or performance tics. She offers a character who needs both pride and affection, and can't easily meld the two. Not in this environment, certainly, and not with this partner (Butler's Kent manifests his demons in a different but no less effective way.)
If Taylor is simultaneously the entomologist, and the specimen under glass, the same is true of Cheryl who has spent the bulk of her young life studying the LeVays and her place within their world. Except she's missed a critical detail. Kajese, so raw and powerful as a conflicted accessory to a burglary in the premiere of Athol Fugard's Victory at the Fountain, again fashions a character wise beyond her years, desperate to know who she is and probably nursing a secret crush or two. There is palpable tension in her interactions both with White's Taylor and, later, with Wesley's Dr. LeVay.
Given how much conflict and discord flows through Stick Fly even before we get to the 11th hour blow-ups, it occasionally feels as though Finney is racing her cast to that finish line. A pair of parallel scenes, between Dr. LeVay and Taylor, and Flip and Kimber played simultaneously with overlapped dialog feels gimmicky. The play's pacing does not leave much time for rest on the characters' part or reflection on ours. Nonetheless, the talented Diamond has given us much to chew on and a hugely entertaining evening to boot.
To read Curtainup's review of the New Jersey premiere go here.