Writers Theatre’s “Stick Fly” explores the secrets of an upper-middle-class Black family

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Michael Brosilow.

Lydia Diamond’s 2006 play Stick Fly is a beautifully written, complicated study of the intersection of family dynamics, racism, sexual politics, class differences, academia, and fathers (both absent and not), among other things. With all that going on, perhaps “complicated” is an understatement. Fundamentally, though, Stick Fly is more personal than that. Though it takes place at the Martha’s Vineyard summer home of the family of a wealthy Black doctor, Diamond’s play focuses on two young Black women who are not (yet) a part of that family: the fiancée of his youngest son and the teenager whose mom has worked in the home as a housekeeper for decades. Through these characters, both to a lesser or greater extent outsiders, she is able to highlight the insecurities, secrets, and emotional chasms that exist within any family that wealth and status can’t insure against.

The first person we meet in director Ron A. Parson’s powerful interpretation of this play is young Cheryl (Ayanna Bria Bakari), who is acting as the family housekeeper in the absence of her sick mother, as she dances exuberantly through the otherwise empty house while preparing it for the imminent arrival of the family. Bakari’s energy is instantly infectious; we easily see the inner joy and positivity of the girl, who we will quickly learn is a brilliant student looking forward to university. Despite the menial nature of the job she and her mother do and the fact that she has grown up without a father in a working-class environment, Cheryl has quite a future ahead of her.

The second young woman, Taylor (Jennifer Latimore), is visiting her fiancé’s family for the first time and is almost desperately anxious to make a good impression. Her ability to do that, however, is hampered by her own upbringing: abandoned with her mother by her now-famous author father (who has written several successful tomes about the African-American experience that are actually present in the library of her fiancé’s house, a beautiful two-story set designed by Linda Buchanan and lit by Claire Chrzan), she has become far too personally aware of the triple problems of being working class, Black and female. In her disillusionment, she sees the world as a contest that needs to be won, and her own hard-fought education (she managed to go to Harvard on scholarship) has done little to alter that view. She is hyper-competitive even playing board games and has a quick trigger about anything related to race, as opposed to her fiancé’s family which, though Black, has grown up so comfortable in wealth that they take it for granted (the casual displays of wealth around their house greatly impress her) and has never felt the acute societal oppression that she has faced all of her life. 

The love of her life, Kent (whom she affectionately calls “Spoon”), is played by Eric Gerard. Alone with Taylor, Kent is as sweet and affectionate as he is proud of the fact that he has found a publisher for his first novel. He is quickly cowed, however, when his older brother Flip (Dimonte Henning) and father (David Alan Anderson playing neurologist Dr. LeVay, who insists that Taylor call him Joseph) enter the scene. Flip too is a doctor (a plastic surgeon), and their father never misses an opportunity to put Kent down for his failure to make a career for himself despite Dad’s having financed three (!) degrees. Dr. LeVay, who doesn’t consider the writing of fiction to be a viable career, won’t even talk to his son about it. His toxic notions of manhood have infected Flip and consistently hurt Kent, and to one extent or another, both sons have been broken by them.

The final character is a White woman, Kimber (Kayla Raelle Holder), who is dating Flip and overtly adds the element of race into the mix not only by virtue of her ethnicity but by her work with inner-city Black students. Kimber, Taylor and Cheryl form the emotional core of the play as the former two try to figure this family out and the latter tries to figure them out. And if Taylor is the passionate, curious (and somewhat caustic) soul of the play, then Cheryl is its beating heart. Even before she makes a discovery that changes absolutely everything, it is clear that she cares about the LeVays so much that she’s always watching out for them. (At one point, she states bluntly that neither of the other two women is good enough for the young men they are with, and she harbors a secret crush on Flip that she knows will never be acted on.)

Parson’s direction brings out every possible nuance of the play and these characters, and his pacing of the two-and-a-half-hour play is pretty much perfect. He manages to give every character many spotlight moments; though Diamond’s script takes sides here, Parsons does not, and everyone feels valuable and important. This results is some excellent acting, including Anderson’s mostly inner-focused performance as the flawed patriarch. It is Latimore and, even more, Bakari, who steal the show, though. Latimore, given perhaps the best showcase she has yet had on Chicagoland stages, makes the most of the opportunity by creating a layered, nuanced character whose father issues and inner anger propel her but who somehow remains likable despite her occasionally uncontrolled outbursts. Bakari, who has been everywhere in Chicago theatre for the past couple of years, also gives the performance of her life here, as the ebullient dancing girl we saw at the start reveals unexpected and powerful depth and capacity for pain.

The play’s title derives from Taylor’s career. As she tells us, studying insects is a tricky business because the creatures tend not to want to sit still long enough for scientists to observe them properly, so entomologists have to glue them to popsicle sticks in order to watch them long enough to derive any conclusions. In the same way that she traps and observes bugs (as she does throughout the play), we are able to learn about this family as, gathered together, they remain in one place long enough to begin to understand them in all of their flawed humanity. Stick Fly places those flaws in sharp relief, though it also shows us the power of emotional connections. It is quite often funny, frequently sharp and a little bit didactic (which is par for the course in a play about academics), occasionally angry, powerful, or poignant, and bluntly honest. You might not want to marry into this family, but spending an evening with them is a memorable experience.

Stick Fly is now playing at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe, IL, until Mar 15. The show runs approximately 2.5 hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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