Stick Flys Ruben Santiago-Hudson portrays the LeVay family patriarch… (Richard Termine, Richard…)
Reporting from New York — Lydia R. Diamond, whose plays often work the intersection of race and class, remembers once posing a hypothetical scenario she knew would prompt heated debate.
The 42-year-old African American playwright and teacher contended that if the Obamas had a son and that son became the fiancé of somebody's white daughter, the young woman's family would not be happy, despite the breeding and connections.
"My white friends would say, 'No, no, no, you're wrong! Class would trump race,'" she recalls. "I wasn't convinced — and still am not — that Grandma would be all that thrilled. No way would anybody want to see a black guy show up."
But, she says, "as I've gotten older, I've so much less conviction about being right. There are so many gray areas. And this is where I write from."
In "Stick Fly," a comedy that opens Thursday on Broadway directed by Kenny Leon and produced by Alicia Keys, Diamond moves full steam into this tricky terrain. In the play, which had a well-received production at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles in 2009, sparks fly when two young African American men bring their respective girlfriends to meet the parents at their lavish summer getaway on Martha's Vineyard.
The crusty patriarch Joseph LeVay, a neurosurgeon, has married into one of the Vineyard's first families, though he often reminds his sons, Flip, a plastic surgeon, and Kent, an aspiring novelist, of his working-class roots. The LeVay family history impresses Taylor, Kent's girlfriend and an entomologist whose lab work lends the play its title. Among the human specimens in the house who come under her scrutiny are Kimberly, Flip's affluent and pretty white lover who works with underprivileged inner-city children; and 18-year-old Cheryl, a bright soon-to-be Ivy League college student who has taken over the household chores from her ailing mother, the LeVay's longtime maid. Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson portrays Dr. LeVay, with Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer as his sons.
"Lydia is courageous to write about class and race in such a broad and complicated way," says director Kenny Leon, who also directed "The Mountaintop" on Broadway this fall and was at the helm of the 2010 revival of August Wilson's "Fences" with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. "It's not about assigning blame. It's about the universality of family and identity."
Indeed, wealth, prestige and education are no cushion against the clashes that erupt in the course of the weekend visit. This occurs most memorably when a game of Scrabble deteriorates into a squabble between Taylor and Kimberly. When Taylor complains bitterly that the white students and teacher of her feminist seminar refused to acknowledge an inherent racism in their approach to a certain topic, Kimberly calls her on her hyper-sensitivity.
"Kimberly, because she has worked with kids on such a low economic standard, finds it difficult to understand why this woman with such beauty, tenacity and intelligence would cast herself as a victim," says Diamond. "And Taylor simply feels that such overt displays of racism warrant questioning." She adds that the pressure mounts because of submerged romantic and sexual connections among the four people. "As Kimberly later tells Flip, 'That was about boys as much as it was about anything.'"
Alicia Keys says that it was just these "funny and smart" confrontations that led her to put her name above the title as producer and to compose incidental music for the show. "I just loved the way the characters purposefully challenged each other, even if they might argue the opposite of what they believed," she says. "I do it myself sometimes to see who it drives mad and who can handle it. I think all families do that at these sorts of emotional gatherings."
Although Diamond says that her play is not autobiographical, elements of the character of Taylor emerge as the playwright sits, dressed all in black, in a Midtown office. She is soft-spoken and thoughtful, a Boston-based mother, teacher and wife who finds the media spotlight somewhat intimidating in dealing with such prickly issues.
"I feel so vulnerable to being misunderstood that I pray that the black literati don't come after me," she says. "These conversations can be so charged and dangerous."
While she teaches playwriting at Boston University, her husband John, a sociologist, lectures on achievement gap issues at Harvard. Asked where she herself might fit in at the LeVay home on Martha's Vineyard, Diamond toys with a metal fly on a chain around her neck, a gift from an actress who was in a previous production of "Stick Fly," which had a long gestation period in regional theater.