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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Stick Fly

I understand that you can be angry and not crazy. Just be a little more, constructive.— Joseph (the family patriarch)
I just wish people would see it like I do. .— Taylor
Your daddy saw it. .— Joseph
So what! He tells the white people, you ain't shit. . . they give him an award. You still ain't shit. . . another award. Meanwhile, what changes? .— Taylor

Taylor Bradley Scott (Michole Briana White) is an educated, independent, self-sufficient, attractive black woman with brains. You can't beat that. She is also a feminist with a post-graduate degree in entomology from John Hopkins. However, all of that is not enough to make things go right for her when she accepts an invitation to spend a weekend with her fiancé Kent ("Spoon") Le Vay (Kevin T. Carroll) at his snooty, affluent African-American family's summer home at Martha's Vineyard. But Taylor isn't the only one slated to have a hard time of it in Lydia R. Diamond's serio-comedy Stick Fly.

Taylor who has been raised by her single mother, a college professor, is openly dismissive and resentful of her father, a recently deceased and renowned scholar who divorced her mother before she was born. Nevertheless, she has a lot to be proud of, not the least of which is her ability to defend herself in the face of a challenge. What fires up her ire is the testy reception she gets from other members of the LeVay family, all of whom will either provoke her or be provoked by her into confrontations.

Despite the obligatory social graces practiced by the LeVays, Taylor is almost immediately conscious of the stilted and discomforting airs that define Spoon's family with their long-established roots in the local community. Dr. Joseph LeVay (John Wesley), the family's autocratic patriarch, makes no bones about his disappointment in Spoon's decision to become a fiction writer instead of pursuing law as a career. That Taylor is in full support of Spoon doesn't help her win this brain surgeon's support or admiration.

It doesn't take long for Taylor to fall into one social trap after another, even to the point of being unwittingly condescending to Cheryl (Julia Pace Mitchell), the family's bubbly and bright 18 year-old maid who has assumed the duties usually performed by her ailing mother, a long time family retainer. It doesn't take us long to think there is something askew as Cheryl, who has also been well-educated and is preparing to go off to college, interacts rather too intimately with the family. She is also openly demonstrative in her affection for Spoon and his older brother Flip (Javon Johnson), a successful plastic surgeon.

To complicate matters (think Days of Our Lives meets One Life to Live), Flip has also invited his very pretty girl friend Kimber (Monette Magrath) for the weekend. She happens to be from a rich, white family with roots in Kennebunkport. Are we surprised that Kimber expresses the kind of liberal (read that harmful) views about which Taylor takes umbrage?

Umbrage is the key motivation for all the highly opinionated weekenders, each of whom is skilled in the art of baiting and berating. Taylor's primary beef is the double standards applied to independent black women with smarts. Just as Taylor has made a successful career of putting insects under the microscope, the playwright chooses to put class consciousness, racial issues including the affected defenses of both clueless whites and cultured African-Americans under the lens for almost three hours.

As expected, a past indiscretion pits one brother against another and a closeted family secret is exposed just in time to put an end to the often hypocritical and mostly self-important posturing. It's to the author's credit that the play only occasionally gives the impression of being a polemical thesis rather than what is it is: an amusingly convoluted, if brainy, soap opera (not an oxymoron).

White is excellent and winning as Taylor, who is alternately warm (towards Spoon) and feisty (towards everyone else) and whose agenda changes from being self-defensive to going on the offense when she is needed to add some spine to the gentler Spoon. As Spoon, Carroll demonstrates a refreshing resolve in the face of his womanizing brother and the outward disdain of his insensitive father. Mitchell, beguiles as the maid who is as apt to sing and dance eagerly through her duties, as she is to abet her employer in his secret rendezvous with pig's feet with hot sauce. Wesley lays on the gravitas with aplomb making Joseph's comeuppance all the more satisfying. What else can you say about Johnson, except that he fits the bill perfectly as the tall, dark and handsome scoundrel Flip. The attractive Magrath holds her own mantel of white-upmanship with esprit de corps.

Despite being overlong, overwrought and overly contentious, Stick Fly is almost giddily entertaining. Director Shirley Jo Finney keeps the many short, verbose scenes, a mix of labored and laugh-inducing arguments, flowing smoothly. Set designer Felix E. Cochren has created the handsome interior of a grand Martha's Vineyard cottage and costume designer Karen Perry has put everyone in it into appropriately smart haute Vineyard apparel.

Post Script: A revelation in this play, at least to me, is finding out about the history of African-Americans (from indentured slaves to the privileged) on Martha's Vineyard from the 18th century to the present. More information on this subject can be found in Jill Nelson's book Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans At Home on an Island (Doubleday, 2005)

Stick Fly
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Shirley Jo Finney

Set Design: Felix E. Cochren
Costume Design: Karen Perry
Lighting Design: Victor En Yu Tan
Soundscape: Barron L. West
Cast: Julia Pace Mitchell, Michole Briana White, Kevin T. Carroll, Javon Johnson, John Wesley, Monette Magrath
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
The Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. (609) 258 — 6524
Prices: $49 to $15
Performances Tuesday to Sunday 09/7/07 to 10/14/07
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/14/07

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