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Race and class collide in both familiar and unique ways in Lydia R. Diamond’s emotionally charged dysfunctional family drama, Stick Fly. The LeVays are gathering for their annual weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, but things are a little different this year. Younger son Kent (Psych’s Dulé Hill) is bringing his fiancée, Taylor (Cold Case’s Tracie Thoms), the daughter of a prestigious and respected cultural intellectual, to meet the clan, and eldest son Flip (Mekhi Phifer in his Broadway debut) will be introducing his new girlfriend, Kimber (Rosie Benton), a well-off white woman who works with troubled inner-city youth. Meanwhile, stubborn patriarch Joe (Tony and Obie winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a prominent neurosurgeon, has arrived without his wife, claiming she will be coming later. In addition, the LeVays’ longtime maid, Miss Ellie, is seriously ill and has sent her daughter, Cheryl (Ruined’s Condola Rashad), to take care of everyone in her stead. Joe is clearly proud of Flip, a successful plastic surgeon, but he is disappointed in Kent, whom Taylor, an entomologist, calls Spoon and Joe considers a failed ne’er-do-well even when he tells everyone that his first novel is going to be published by a major house. As Taylor and Kimber do battle over the rich and the poor, the self-centered Flip tries to hide a previous dalliance with Taylor. But in the middle of it all is Cheryl, an intelligent, prideful young woman who understands a lot more than she lets on but is about to get the shock of her life.
Produced and composed by Alicia Keys and directed by Kenny Leon, who is also currently helming Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in The Mountaintop, Stick Fly is an involving drama with sharp dialogue, an incisive sense of humor, and a solid cast. Detroit native Diamond, a Steppenwolf veteran making her Broadway debut, has written a compelling tale that flirts with clichés but usually manages to skirt just around them. David Gallo’s inventive set features a carefully sliced wall that allows the kitchen to be seen through the living room, cutting through works of art (by the likes of Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat) in a way that echoes the cross-cultural arguments that continue among the characters. Rashad, the daughter of actress Phyllis Rashad and former NFL wide receiver and broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, is particularly effective as Cheryl, who sees through a lot of the LeVay facade as she goes about her menial duties, being treated differently by everyone in the house, a dramatic device that helps to define the inherent biases in each of the characters. “Racism, discrimination, whatever,” Kimber says at one point. “You can’t imply that it exists. It’s like we’re supposed to have come so far that it’s taboo to suggest we have any further to go.” Stick Fly offers a fascinating counterpart to Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, which is currently running at the Booth Theatre. While the former tells the story of a Huxtable-like wealthy black family meeting on the Vineyard, the latter focuses on a rich white family gathering together in Palm Springs, each group dealing with long-simmering insecurities, a book written by one of the adult children, and a not necessarily well-hidden (to the audience) secret that explodes in the second act. But each play handles their situations differently, especially at the very end. Seen together, they offer intriguing insight into the state of the American family, and perhaps not coincidentally they are two of the best plays on Broadway right now.