Theater Review: The Tao of Oak Bluffs, Laid Bare in Stick Fly

Mekhi Phifer, Rosie Benton, Tracie Thoms, and Dulé Hill in 'Stick Fly.' Photo: Richard Termine

Every moment is a struggle in Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s ambitious, ambivalent, wildly uneven interrogation of upper-middle-class African-American life. Struggles nest within struggles: race, sex, and class collide, commingle, and collide again. Characters turn on each other and themselves. Even the playwright herself seems to be grappling with what sort of play she wants to write, whom she should punish or redeem, and whether she’s even in the punishment-and-redemption business. The odd part is, after each battle is won, lost or fought to a draw, Diamond’s combatants—the intellectually hypervigilant LeVay family, along with their lovers, retainers and familiars—too often make up and carry on almost as before. Is this, perhaps, the real secret of the 1 percent: To do tremendous damage to oneself and others, then walk away as if nothing’s happened? Or is it a symptom of a play that’s gushing out of the playwright’s brain faster than her chosen genre—contrived family melodrama, a new province for the experimental Diamond—can catch it? (Producer Alicia Keys also wrote the incidental music, which sounds great, but makes it seem as if we’re breaking for commercial every ten minutes.)

First, a brief beef chart of Stick Fly’s painstakingly carved conflicts: neurotic Taylor (Tracie Thoms), the penniless, dispossessed daughter of a famous black intellectual, has come to the LeVay vacation manse on Martha’s Vineyard to meet the family of her new fiancé, Kent (Dulé Hill). It’s an audition, as Taylor sees it, and that’s got her hackles up. Kent, meanwhile, fights for the respect of his father (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a prickly neurosurgeon armored with the supreme self-regard of the superbly self-made, who reserves his praise for Kent’s older brother Harold (Mekhi Phifer), a womanizing Atlanta plastic surgeon who goes by “Flip,” and is. He’s also on the Vineyard with his new squeeze, Kimber (Rosie Benton), who’s Waspy-white and guilty-rich, and wants to be taken seriously almost as badly as does Taylor. (Who, it turns out, once had a fling with Harold, bringing us full circle.) All the while, the teenaged maid, Cheryl (Condola Rashad)—subbing for her mother, the LeVays' longtime housekeeper—flits around these titans and their dissertative clashes, tidying their messes, parrying Taylor’s stigmatizing class-pity, and quietly dealing with a deep, private trauma - one that involves the LeVays. “Seriously!” Cheryl finally explodes, when she can take no more. “[You are] the most self-involved bullshit people!”

It’s a head-clearing moment, probably the peak of the play, not least because it belongs to Rashad, known best for her shattering turn in Ruined. Here she’s delivering a career-launching performance: On a stage full of opinions and theories, she is simply an honest fact. The play is built around Taylor, and Thoms, after a rabbity start, really makes the plight of a poor-little-smart-girl resonate. But for all of Stick Fly’s thunderous dialectics and knock-down drag-out debates—on everything from the upside of racial guilt to the role of rape in the creation of America’s black aristocracy—only Rashad’s Cheryl burns through the badinage, the self-help and the seminars, and into the audience’s soul.