L.A. TIMES - Critic's Choice
SECRETS OF THE WEALTHY
by Kathleen Foley
The luxurious beachside home of the LeVay family on
Martha’s Vineyard bespeaks old money and cultural refinement.
However, don’t let the A.R. Gurney trappings of Lydia R. Diamond’s
“Stick Fly,” now at the Matrix Theatre, deceive you. No tale of WASP
angst, Diamond’s sprawling drama gives a fascinating perspective on
a privileged African American family, as seen from the very top of
the social scale.
Dr. Joseph LeVay (John Wesley), patriarch of the clan, is a
self-made neurosurgeon who scrapped his way up from humble
beginnings. LeVay vaulted into the elite when he married a blueblood
whose forebears were the first black landowners on the Vineyard.
LeVay’s sons Kent (Chris Butler), an aspiring writer, and Flip
(Terrell Tilford), a plastic surgeon, relate to their father’s tales
of early privation as quaint family myth. “I’m not sure that class
matters,” observes Flip. And Kent jokingly complains “I had Dad’s
old Saab,” apparently the full extent of his youthful hardship.
But emotional travails – particularly Kent’s fractious relationship
with his demanding dad – have supplanted financial concerns. Dark
secrets begin to surface shortly after the arrival of Kent’s fiancée
Taylor (Michole Briana White), an entomologist abandoned early on by
her Pulitzer-winning father, and Flip’s white girlfriend Kimber
(Avery Clyde), herself born into wealth. At the other end of the
social spectrum is Cheryl (Tinashe Kajese), teenage daughter of the
family’s maid. When a shocking revelation lances her festering
resentment, poison flows freely.
Diamond’s overly discursive family drama takes some gratuitous
segues into coincidence but ultimately takes on the leisureliness
and heft of an August Wilson work, affording a “stick fly” on the
wall peek into a unique corner of the African American experience.
Shirley Jo Finney’s staging bristles with verisimilitude in every
particular. Christian Epps’ shifting seaside lighting, Mitch
Greenhill’s oceanic sound, Dana Woods’ subtly upscale costumes, and
most particularly John Iacovelli’s lavishly detailed set, are all
superb. But Finney is first and foremost an actors’ director who has
put together the optimum cast and elicited superb performances from
each and every performer in her charge. The resulting ensemble
crackles with intelligence and humor and rage, and we are the
privileged observers of their truthfulness.
L.A. WEEKLY - GO
SNAKES AND SOCIAL LADDERS
Lydia R. Diamond's Comedy of Contemporary Manners
by Neal Weaver
Lydia R. Diamond’s scintillating comedy Stick Fly is
set in the elegant and expensive summer home (gorgeously designed by
John Iacovelli) of Dr. Joseph Levay (John Wesley), in an elite
African-American enclave of Martha’s Vineyard. The family is
arriving for the weekend, and son Flip (Terrell Tilford), a
successful plastic surgeon, is bringing his white fiancée Kimber
(Avery Clyde) to meet the family. Writer son Kent (Chris Butler)
also brings his bride-to-be, Taylor (Michole Briana White), who
comes from a lower rung on the social ladder. At first all is
banter, horseplay and fun, but gradually fracture lines appear.
Despite their wealth and privilege, the Levays are not immune to the
stresses and prejudices of snobbery, race and class, conflicts
between fathers and sons, and brotherly rivalries. Mom hasn’t turned
up for the family gathering, and secrets about sexual hanky-panky
lurk beneath the surface, waiting to erupt. Meanwhile, young
substitute maid–housekeeper Cheryl (Tinashe Kajese) is seriously
upset about something. Diamond’s play combines complex characters,
provocative situations and literate, funny dialogue in this
delicious comedy of contemporary manners. Director Shirley Joe
Finney reveals a sharp eye for social nuance, and melds her dream
cast into a brilliantly seamless ensemble. They are all terrific.
L.A. TIMES - FEATURE ARTICLE
Strike the inner-city setting
Delving into new milieus
by Reed Johnson
Guess who's coming to the beach barbecue this summer?
Middle-class African Americans, that's who.
In two new critically esteemed works, Lydia Diamond's play "Stick
Fly" and Colson Whitehead's just-published semiautobiographical
novel "Sag Harbor" (Doubleday), the focus is on middle-class blacks
summering on, respectively, Martha's Vineyard and rural Long Island.
While both works address some of the perennial challenges of African
American life, they also depict their characters basking in such
fair-weather pleasures as hanging out with family, eating waffle
cones, playing board games and schlepping across sand dunes.
Diamond's comic drama, which is running through June 14 at the
Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue, and Whitehead's buoyant
coming-of-age tale follow on the heels of Jill Nelson's "Finding
Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island."
Published in 2005, her book is a lyrical memoir-history of the
author's half-century love affair with the Oak Bluffs community, a
longtime African American enclave off the picturesque Massachusetts
As Americans of all colors reconsider the meanings and milieus of
the African American experience in the Obama era, we may be
witnessing a gradual sea change in the way that African American
artists represent themselves and are perceived by others. In both
"Stick Fly" and "Sag Harbor," the characters intermittently analyze
their language, relationships and socio-cultural heritage (or
baggage) as African Americans. But what's also striking about these
works is that they present their well-educated, witty characters as
matter-of-factly inhabiting a world of leisure and affluence, a very
different way than many white Americans may be used to seeing black
people portrayed in popular culture.
"Often, people who make decisions about what gets produced have only
known black people as a service provider," Diamond, 40, said in a
phone interview last week. That's partly why an educated,
middle-class black family such as the Huxtables, when they first
appeared on "The Cosby Show" a quarter-century ago, caught off-guard
viewers who hadn't imagined that such families existed, she
Like the Huxtables' comfortably rambunctious Brooklyn home, what the
communities of Oak Bluffs and Long Island's Azurest, Sag Harbor
Hills and Ninevah offer is a more neutral, less historically and
symbolically loaded backdrop against which to examine their
fictional characters. They are depicted as places where middle-class
African Americans are in some ways more free to be themselves than
they are in the rest of white-dominated American society.
As Nelson writes in her memoir of Oak Bluffs: "There was no need to
be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as
good as or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as
ambassadors for integration and racial harmony. For the months of
summer the weight of being race representative -- and all the
political, emotional, and psychic burdens that come with demanding
that an individual represent a nonexistent monolith -- was lifted.
Here, it was enough that you simply be yourself."
"Sag Harbor," which is set in the mid-1980s, elucidates not the
chronicle of a people's historic struggle, but simply the minutiae
of its teenage protagonist Benji's daily routines, shrewd
reflections, sophomoric gibes and occasionally fumbling but earnest
attempts at self-transformation.
"According to the world, we were the definition of a paradox: black
boys with beach houses," Whitehead writes. "A paradox to the
outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange
about it. It was simply who we were."
To some, "Stick Fly" and "Sag Harbor" may appear to present a kind
of alternative history of the Great American Summer Vacation. But
among East Coast middle-class blacks, that history is well
"Even in college, I'd say, 'I'm from Sag Harbor,' people would be
like, 'I didn't know black people went out there,' " Whitehead, 39,
said last week in Los Angeles, where he appeared in the Aloud public
conversation series at the downtown Central Library. "Meanwhile, for
us it was the opposite. We didn't know white people went out there.
We thought all the white people who lived in East Hampton,
Bridgehampton, were townies."
Not only are the worlds of "Stick Fly" and "Sag Harbor" strikingly
different from those usually glimpsed in mainstream movies and
television, they're also quite removed from the environments
typically associated with some of the most illustrious African
American artists. Viewed from the plush living-room set of "Stick
Fly" or the weekender bungalows and fried-clam shacks of "Sag
Harbor," the gritty precincts of Spike Lee's Bedford-Stuyvesant
neighborhood or August Wilson's Hill District(Pittsburgh) in
Pittsburgh seem a world away. So do the hardships endured by the
struggling characters (including slaves) who populate the fiction of
the nation's most celebrated African American writer, Nobel laureate
Diamond has said she believes that "America has a real comfort zone
with seeing African Americans in certain ways," usually either as
historical figures revisiting past wrongs inflicted by white people,
or in a contemporary urban setting where many of the same historic,
race-based struggles still occur.
Changing the setting of a play or novel from the Mississippi Delta
or Detroit to an idyllic island bluff doesn't mean those struggles
necessarily have ended, the Boston-based playwright maintains, but
it can offer a different lens on the nature of those continuing
In "Stick Fly," set in the present, the LeVay family's summer home
in Oak Bluffs testifies to the hard-earned progress of a clan as
well as an entire ethnic group. Its walls and crannies are covered
with African carvings and an original painting by the African
American artist and writer Romare Bearden. The bookshelves include
the Riverside Shakespeare and "Parting the Waters," Taylor Branch's
history of the civil rights movement. (John Iacovelli did the Matrix
production's evocative set design.)
In a program note, writer Carrie Hughes traces the African American
history of Oak Bluffs to the late 1700s. The community swelled
during World War II with African American "doctors, lawyers,
dentists, teachers and business people, as well as politicians and
In that rarefied milieu, "Stick Fly" shapes up less as a play about
race per se than about the economic and social distance that
separates the LeVay brothers, Kent (Chris Butler) and Flip (Jason
Delane), and their successful doctor father ( John Wesley) from
Kent's working-class, hyper-intellectual, hyper-opinionated
girlfriend, Taylor (Michole Briana White) and the family's
disgruntled young housekeeper (Tinashe Kajese), all of whom are
"When I wrote the play, I knew I was writing a play about class,"
said Diamond, who grew up in what she describes as a single-parent,
"solidly lower-middle-class home."
In fact, several of her play's plot points turn on matters of class,
education and/or gender. Subtly, "Stick Fly" demonstrates that
privilege, like discrimination, wears many masks, and is often
invisible to those who benefit from it -- even, or perhaps
especially, if they themselves are the victims of some form of
The nature of privilege also figures as a theme of "Sag Harbor."
Benji casually confesses to his youthful ignorance of some of the
canonical heroes and cultural idols of African American history,
such as W.E.B. DuBois. He's aware at some level that his own more
fortunate lifestyle was made possible by his ancestors' sacrifices.
But he's also liberated by not being constantly consumed with that
Whitehead, author of the novels "The Intuitionist," "John Henry
Days" and "Apex Hides the Hurt" as well as a book of essays about
his hometown, "The Colossus of New York," said that "the hopes and
dreams of my grandparents' generation," those African Americans who
first started coming out to Sag Harbor, were obviously different
from those of him and his childhood friends.
"Definitely they were part of this scene, a really new emergent
black middle class. And for them to go out there was something that
they were inventing. You know, they wanted it and they went for it,
and no one's going to tell them no."
His parents, living through the civil rights era, also had their
own, different perspectives and motivations, he said. "And then for
our generation, [we would] sort of take their struggles for granted,
playing with ' Star Wars' figures in the dirt. Not aware of this
whole history, just being the beneficiaries, the clueless
For Whitehead, Sag Harbor symbolized something of a refuge from his
family's life in New York City, where "I was a target for the police
if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." (Once, as a high
school senior, he was taken to a police station in handcuffs after
being falsely fingered as a robber.)
Not that Sag Harbor was an idyll. "If we were out of Sag Harbor we
were out of our territories," he said. "And you couldn't just go
strolling around, driving aimlessly around through the streets of
Yet for Benji, Sag Harbor represents a world of dawning
possibilities, in which worries over "keeping it real" and acting
"authentic" can be allayed, the stereotype-filled "great narrative
of black pathology" can be set aside (at least from Memorial Day to
Labor Day) and it's OK to like Siouxsie and the Banshees as well as
"I probably would've had too much anxiety about being called 'bourgie'
if I had written this book in the '90s," Whitehead acknowledged.
"Like I can't reveal that I actually had a comfortable upbringing."
Are we in a different place now? "No, I'm in a different place," he
said. "This is the way it went down, and I don't care if you know