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‘Stick Fly’ could put playwright in August company

'Stick Fly' is a new play by Lydia R. Diamond, whose work has been compared to that of August Wilson. "Stick Fly" is a new play by Lydia R. Diamond, whose work has been compared to that of August Wilson. (Joanne Rathe / Globe Staff)
By Joseph Williams Jr.
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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WASHINGTON - By now, the accolades directed toward Boston-based playwright Lydia R. Diamond are so similar they are becoming old hat.

Hailed as a rising star of the theater, Diamond has won acclaim for her latest work, “Stick Fly,’’ in regional productions from Los Angeles to Atlanta. The play’s actors have praised its crackling dialogue and nuanced characters; critics have called her examination of racial fault lines among the black elite fresh and original and are placing this African-American playwright in the top ranks alongside August Wilson, a legend of the theater.

It’s one thing, however, to have critics compare Diamond’s work with Wilson’s; it’s another to have that comparison come from an award-winning director who brought Wilson’s plays to life on Broadway. And it’s something else entirely when that director, Kenny Leon, predicts that Diamond will soon be a household name.

“I think she’s smart, I think the language is poetic and clever and kinetic, and she writes about a group of people that seldom gets talked about. That drew me to the work,’’ says Leon, director of “Stick Fly,’’ which comes to the Huntington Theater Company Friday, in a joint production fresh from a successful monthlong run at Arena Stage here in the nation’s capital.

“I can’t think of such a play that’s been written about the black upper class,’’ says Leon, who will soon direct a Broadway revival of Wilson’s “Fences,’’ starring Denzel Washington. “I think people have been trying to do this, but I think Lydia is breaking fresh ground.’’

Coming after rave reviews for Diamond’s stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,’’ which launched her into the national spotlight, and praise for other works such as “Voyeurs de Venus’’ and “Harriet Jacobs,’’ the successful production of “Stick Fly’’ could catapult Diamond to stardom.

Nevertheless, she tries to remain low-key about the accolades and predictions that her moment has arrived. While she acknowledges critical acclaim and praise like Leon’s makes her heart beat “a little faster,’’ Diamond says she tries to keep things in perspective.

“I think I have to keep pushing down that adrenaline rush that I get,’’ she says during a wide-ranging phone interview while looking after her 5-year-old son, home from school on a snow day. “That’s really not real. That’s outside myself.’’

“I just have plays to write,’’ she says. “It’s just my job.’’

In “Stick Fly,’’ Diamond does that job well, creating a unique glimpse into the lives of the black elite through the eyes of the LeVays, the wealthy family at the center of the play. In some ways, they seem to exemplify black success in the age of Obama.

Patriarch Joe LeVay, a successful neurosurgeon, married into one of the first black families to own land on the “white side’’ of Martha’s Vineyard and spent millions renovating the family estate. Eldest son Flip, a playboy plastic surgeon, is dating Kimber, a white socialite who teaches inner-city kids. His younger brother Kent, a dilettante novelist, is engaged to Taylor, a doctoral student and daughter of a renowned black intellectual. Even Cheryl, the teenage daughter of the LeVays’ African-American maid, studies at an exclusive Manhattan private school.

Though the family seems ensconced in wealth and privilege, a weekend reunion in the Vineyard mansion becomes a unique backdrop for a verbal slam-dance of class, gender, and family politics, with a dark family secret lurking in the background.

Although each character takes a turn under Diamond’s microscope - the play’s title is a reference to how entomologists study the flight patterns of insects - it is Taylor, Flip’s intense, insecure fiancee (played by Nikkole Salter), who is the catalyst. Taylor’s concerns about being the only black woman in her degree field of entomology, her insecurities about her lower-class upbringing, and her issues surrounding her famous but absent father provide many of the sparks that fly between the characters.

“I think that she’s a part of an American experience that is particular to people of color, but not exclusive, because I think there are many universal qualities’’ including the desire to fit in, Salter says. “Taylor doesn’t belong to the African-American world that is represented by the media to the public, because she’s academic, she’s quirky, and she probably doesn’t listen to hip-hop. But on the other side of that, she doesn’t belong to Virginia Woolf, either. So she finds herself not fitting in anywhere.’’

Diamond, an engaging, intellectually driven person with a wry sense of humor, acknowledges that Salter could have been describing her.

Of all the characters in the play, “I most identify with Taylor,’’ says Diamond, who is an assistant professor of theater at Boston University. Diamond was born in Detroit and raised by her mother, a musician and academic, in a series of college towns, including Amherst; Carbondale, Ill.; and Waco, Texas. Like the fictional Taylor, Diamond was a precocious only child whose father was not present in her home and whose academic path included getting used to the discomfort of being an “only’’: the only black kid in an advanced high school class, the only African-American drama student in some Northwestern University classes, the only black girl hanging out in a group of white peers.

Though her family income was modest, Diamond says, her mother’s career gave her access to a world of intellectual heavyweights - artists, musicians, doctoral students - who loved discussing politics and the black-white divide. She also had glimpses into the lives of affluent whites. At one point, Diamond says, her mother, a skilled flute player and pianist, bartered with an instructor at a local stable: horseback riding lessons for young Lydia in exchange for flute lessons for the instructor’s daughter.

While her initial goal was to write a “well-crafted comedy,’’ Diamond says, “Stick Fly’’ evolved “into things I would enjoy exploring, revolving around race or class, because that’s just sort of where I live, in my mind and my work.’’

Although the lives of the black upper class have been explored before - think Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “Sag Harbor,’’ Wilson’s “Radio Golf,’’ and the groundbreaking Huxtable clan created by Bill Cosby - Diamond has managed the tricky feat of creating realistic 21st-century family dynamics onstage that African-Americans may not have seen, yet whites can also can relate to. At the same time, she drops enough comedic black cultural reference points along the way - discomfort with interracial dating, tension between lighter- and darker-skinned blacks, Joe LeVay’s midnight snack of pickled pigs’ feet, eaten straight from the jar - that the clan feels much more authentic than TV’s sanitized Huxtables.

That places “Stick Fly’’ a cut above most stilted attempts to depict life among wealthy African-Americans, Leon says.

“It gives us a chance to broaden the idea of what folks think about African-Americans,’’ he says. “It’s such a diverse group of people that have similarities and differences. It’s such a huge opportunity to broaden the idea of what being black in America is.’’

Diamond’s ability to bridge two worlds and make a connection with black and white theatergoers of all classes impressed Leon, who signed on to direct the play in Washington and Boston.

“I was raised as a poor guy, growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., with my grandmother. It was very unlike Martha’s Vineyard,’’ Leon says. “But in ‘Stick Fly’ I found things I could still relate to,’’ including the scandal that threatens to unravel the LeVay family.

Salter concurs, recalling a conversation she had with a white audience member who approached her after a recent performance in Washington.

“The comment was a little offensive to me, but I understood where she was coming from, but she was, like, Oh, you could totally play this play with white people and it would be the same. And I was like, Well, it wouldn’t exactly be the same, but I understand what you’re saying. Basically, you’re saying that you see yourself in these people.’’

That type of appeal has Leon anticipating big things for “Stick Fly,’’ adding that Diamond’s future is as bright as her name.

“She’s layered the play in such a beautiful way. The politics unfold in natural conversation,’’ he says. “You may not be rich, but you know what it’s like to go on a family vacation. You may not have brought someone home of a different race, but you may have brought home someone you thought your family would not have approved of.

“This play is specifically about this family, but it allows all of us to get in there and experience it,’’ Leon adds. “We can take from the specific and create a universal experience. That’s what this play does. . . . The audiences identify with the material. It works for them, and they have truly been entertained, and they go home thinking about the things they have heard.’’

When asked about predictions that “Stick Fly,’’ like Wilson’s work, will find its way beyond regional theater to Broadway, Diamond pauses before answering, then measures her words carefully.

“This is the first time I’ve had a show with such high production values,’’ she says, referring to the elaborate staging of the play’s Washington run. “Every playwright would like to have his or her work seen by as many people as possible, but it is out of my hands.

“This play,’’ she adds, “will find its way to wherever it is supposed to go.’’

STICK FLY

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in collaboration with Arena Stage at Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Friday through March 21. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org