Spending a long weekend with family can be described as many ways. Frightening, inspiring, boring, exciting and predictable are just a few choice words to characterize such a situation. Stick Fly, the engrossing family drama by Lydia R. Diamond about a family reunion in Martha’s Vineyard, fits all those descriptions and more.
The two sons of the LeVay clan, a moneyed African-American family, have each brought their newest significant others to their vacation home meet their parents. The older son, Harold (nicknamed Flip), is an Atlanta-based cosmetic surgeon and ladies’ man who attempts to hide the fact that his newest girlfriend is Caucasian for as long as possible. The younger son Kent is an aspiring fiction writer whose latest book is about to be published and is introducing his fiance Taylor, to the family. The patriarch of the family is Joe, a successful doctor who spends much of the weekend excusing the absence of his wife. The family is tended to by Cheryl, the daughter of their regular housekeeper.
Lengthy conversations are a given when such an articulate and educated family is gathered together and the LeVays are no exception. Directed by Kenny Leon, Diamond’s effectively paced script plants several potential dramas and conflicts to take root as the evening progresses: Kimber is not Italian, as Flip first described her; she is a WASP (or, as Flip says, “melanin-challenged.”) Taylor and Flip were once romantically involved. No one knows why Mrs. LeVay hasn’t shown up yet. And Cheryl is about to learn a secret about her family that will inevitably change her future.
Taylor is the clearly outlined protagonist of Stick Fly and when played by Tracie Thoms one can’t help but sympathize with her as she struggles to ingratiate herself into the moneyed, confident, overachieving LeVays. (The house’s casually opulent sets are artistically designed by David Gallo.) Abandoned as a baby by her wealthy, famous father, Taylor grew up with her mother and without money and is clearly uncomfortable being waited upon by Cheryl. The clash between her insecure offers to help herself and Cheryl’s surly determination are truly entertaining to watch.
The plot of Stick Fly progresses steadily, and while it is easy to see the Big Secret in Act Two coming, one still appreciates Diamond’s even pacing and character development as well as the excellent ensemble of actors portraying them.
As Taylor, Thoms gives an admirable and compelling performance. It is easy to see that her fast-talking intellect overshadows deep insecurities that escalate as the weekend progresses. As she engages in debates with the family about race, class and society, her emotions escalate to dangerous levels. While discussing racial inequality in the classroom (as well as outside of it), Taylor lashes out at Kimber in a lengthy monologue that quickly borders on hysteria. Impressively performed by Thoms, it is truly uncomfortable to witness and I found myself looking away from the stage a few times because I felt so sorry for the characters I was watching.
Taylor’s fiance Kent, played with a heroic sensitivity by Dule Hill, is an unfortunately underwritten role. His main function in the show seems to be appearing devoted and loving, no matter how Taylor acts around his family. Other than being mocked by his father and teased by his brother, Hill is left with little to do onstage.
Mekhi Phifer plays Flip in a cool, collected performance. For the majority of the show he appears to be detached from his family’s dramatics and hysterics and simply wants everyone to get along. When his facade finally cracks in Act Two, is rewarding to witness Phifer take the character to a deeper level.
Rosie Benton is admirably self-assured as Kimber, remaining calm and collected in circumstances that would disturb many other women. Her classically expensive clothing and carefully modulated voice reveal her wealthy background, but her remarks during conversation can be credited to her education. That she means well is without a doubt, but the character’s sincerity can be questioned.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson comfortably plays Joe, providing some brilliantly timed moments of levity during more heated moments of dialogue. When he and Taylor converse privately, they share a sincere rapport pleasurable and comforting to witness.
The standout of the cast, however, is Condola Rashad, who plays Cheryl with a commanding presence and an authentic vulnerability. Her enormous eyes, which are clearly visible even many rows back in the audience, beautifully convey anger, fear and sadness, and she expertly delivers the character’s sporadically surly bits of talkback with great humor.
While many of the ideas Stick Fly addresses are neither new nor shocking, it is appealing to see a different set of characters on Broadway that we have not seen before. At one point, Cheryl explodes, shouting at the family, “[You are] the most self-involved bullshit people! … You don‘t think ‘bout nothin‘ but yourselves and your damn socio-economic bantering … and relationship dysfunction and shit!” The truth of that statement can’t be denied. But at least the “socio-economic bantering and relationship dysfunction” is stated so articulately by such a good-looking and talented cast.