Sunday, February 28, 2010

Diamond delivers


Nikkole Salter examines a dramatic specimen in Stick Fly.

Ah, Lydia R. Diamond. My pointed criticism of this female, Black (sure, I'll capitalize it, though maybe I should capitalize Female too?) playwright's early work has brought a veritable avalanche of hatred down on my head from the likes of the oleaginous Isaac Butler, the pissy J. Holtham, and the fatuously repellent Rob Weinert-Kendt.

But now, funnily enough, Diamond has gone and written a very good play - Stick Fly, now at the Huntington through March 28. It's a remarkable and entertaining piece of craft, a genuinely funny comedy of racial manners that pivots persuasively into domestic drama. So I have to reverse myself and admit there's much more to Ms. Diamond than being "sexy and connected," as I once suspected. But at the same time, the thing that may drive the blogosphere crazy again is that Diamond has made this major artistic jump by, indeed, addressing her own psychological issues around race (and with remarkable good humor) rather than projecting them onto history. As my friend whispered to me at intermission, "It's like she's been reading your blog, and agreed with you!"

Now of course that's impossible - Stick Fly was written some time ago. But it's striking that Diamond has abandoned her usual slave-girl narratives - which struck me as utterly false - and turned a fresh and honest eye (for the most part) on a young woman much like herself: smart, educated, hyper-articulate, and fluttering at the edge of the upper echelons of African-American wealth and privilege. This is her actual milieu, she knows it well, and her new honesty about the construction of "race" among the upper classes gives her play a refreshing edge. In a way, of course, the success of Stick Fly may be merely one more example of the wisdom of the old advice, "Write what you know!" But it's good to see the old saw still has some teeth in it.

Of course, this wouldn't be Lydia R. Diamond if there weren't a few twists here and there in the telling of the tale. I was surprised, for instance, to discover that while she had set her play on Martha's Vineyard, she had located it not in Oak Bluffs, the historical center of the Island's black community, but in the snootier, far-whiter Edgartown. I myself summered for years in Oak Bluffs with my partner, and we loved its wholesome yet jazzy vibe (amusingly enough, we could never stand snobby Edgartown). But class - or perhaps the better word is status - may be Diamond's true subject (more on that later), so I soon understood why she had re-located black Vineyard life to a town where it seems just about everything is painted bright white. (Alas, Diamond also seemed about to play fast and loose with history at one point with an implication that the Vineyard's first seacaptain of color was active in the slave trade - he was actually a whaler. I think that line could be cut.)

But in general, Diamond's writing is taut and "true," as Louise Kennedy might coo, and she lays out a situation and a set of characters that by today's standards are surprising in their scope, and hint at the ambitions of such canonized writers as Miller and O'Neill (and maybe even Chekhov). Diamond sets her scene, a typical summer-vacation gathering, in the ancestral home of the LeVays, one of the most prominent black families on the Vineyard - only the house comes with an unusual provenance: it's the inheritance of the family matriarch, who for some reason is missing from this particular outing. Actually make that two matriarchs who are missing - the LeVays' long-time housekeeper, "Miss Ellie" has been replaced by her daughter, Cheryl, who seems almost like family (with a stress on "almost").

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Into this intriguing scene, redolent as it is with history and possible doppelgängers, Diamond drops - well, herself, actually; but her factotum is named "Taylor," an almost-too-striving entomologist (that's someone who studies bugs) engaged to Spoon, the second son of the LeVay clan, who after years of "floundering" (according to his father) has only just found himself as a novelist. Dad's much sweeter on his more-successful son, Flip, a plastic surgeon who has a distant look in his eye for all the social flash he commands - and who also comes accoutred with a white fiancée, Kimber, a pale porcelain goddess from (wait for it) Kennebunkport, i.e., Bushville, one of the Democratic Vineyard's corresponding Republican stars in this country's galaxy of privileged enclaves.

We sense immediately this could lead to quite a comedy of manners indeed. And sure enough, Kimber - who has actually rejected her family's lifestyle and works with black kids in the inner city - is soon being dissed by Taylor for her white-girl guilt with something close to mania. (Or maybe egomania.) It's a hackle-raising scene - especially since Kimber is forced to endure it purely for the color of her skin - that kick-starts Diamond's somewhat leisurely exposition into higher gear. Even more strikingly, the rant is very much in Diamond's former dramatic voice. But this time that voice doesn't control her play; indeed, it's held within a much larger structure, which in effect critiques it. And to her great credit, it's clear that the playwright (via her other characters) seems to realize that given the situation - these people are all going to be family - Taylor's behavior is destructive and socially impossible; indeed, her attitude of adopted oppression becomes almost a topic of mockery from the LeVays, who want for nothing and are, as they say, highly assimilated. This in and of itself is quite interesting. But I think Diamond doesn't take the next step which could have transformed Stick Fly from a very good play into a great play.

This would have been to investigate the links between Taylor's obvious need for status and the real sources of racism (which after all is only the most unfair and arbitrarily evil form of status-seeking). Indeed, oddly enough, Kimber is more in touch with racism as a grave moral problem than Taylor is, and is clearly doing more to fight it than Flip (or any of the LeVays). Diamond hints here and there at this theme - at one point Kimber unthinkingly describes Cheryl as being like the LeVays' "slave" - but the playwright generally steers clear of these very fraught waters, the better to focus on the issues that drive Taylor's sensitivity.

These turn out, believably enough, to be abandonment-related (Taylor was raised by a single mother), a complex which Diamond teases out via the hidden truth about Cheryl: she's actually the daughter of Mr. LeVay by Miss Ellie, and so a half-sister to Flip and Spoon, and what's more - although this is never spoken aloud - a possible claimant to the more-stately mansion she's been cleaning (which, as I noted earlier, is bound up with matriarchy, not patriarchy). With these strokes, Diamond seems to be edging toward her own take on the mode of Chekhov and O'Neill - that is, toward some of the deepest social statements naturalism so far has been able to make.

Not that she's quite there yet. There's a sudsy subplot about a past sexual liaison that doesn't lead anywhere in particular, and strange as it may sound, Diamond's heroine (i.e., her own persona), who first opened the door to all this drama, begins to get a little bit in the way. Taylor remains amusing, and actress Nikkole Salter contributes a brilliantly detailed and compelling performance that keeps her character sympathetic even when she's at her most abrasive; but as the play moves forward, we begin to realize that the playwright has developed so much intriguing material that her heroine is now actually the least interesting person onstage. We understand her completely, indeed we know her almost too well - it's everyone else who has become tinged with mystery. Suddenly all sorts of political and sexual live wires begin to spark, if only briefly: Diamond drops hint after hint about sexism and the possible unconscious emasculation of black men, about class consciousness among African-Americans, about the perils of compromise, and about a matriarchy that is all-powerful but absent (Mrs. LeVay never appears, much as we wish she would). Flip begins to look more haunted, and Kimber more strangely opaque, even as Cheryl edges toward tragedy, and Mr. LeVay toward coldness-unto-cruelty; Taylor's problems with sorority girls do begin to look like nothing next to this.

But Diamond can't give her up, and she can't quite give up on using Cheryl as Taylor's factotum either, just as Taylor is her own (yes, there's a double doppelgänger-thang going on in this show, a fact which Diamond underlines once or twice in case we miss it). The focus of the second act seems to move to Cheryl, but really doesn't (despite a wonderful performance from Amber Iman), when it really should. Indeed, to my mind its rising action should lead inevitably to Cheryl's confrontation with Mrs. LeVay; but instead, the curtain falls on a plaintive Taylor wondering, only half-ironically, "Do you think they liked me?" The answer, of course, is that we do, we really do, but there are simply bigger fish to be caught in Diamond's suddenly-wider dramatic sea. At the same time, one does wonder somewhere if the playwright isn't merely following a well-worn set of treads in American theatre (and especially television!) by teasing us with political conflict, then diverting us into domestic drama. (I had to almost slap myself as I thought, "Wait a minute, Lydia - what about racism???") Because ironically enough, to keep the focus on Taylor, Diamond is forced to paint Kimber as a kind of white-plaster saint; Flip remains a cypher, and even Spoon, the most sympathetic of the LeVays, doesn't get a chance to grapple with the reality of his new sister. O'Neill and Chekhov, and even Miller, would have gone further with all these characters.

But of course these issues only mean that Diamond now promises even greater achievements than Stick Fly. It's actually very high praise to be complaining that a new playwright hasn't matched O'Neill or Chekhov! It means, in fact, that the dramatist has artfully managed the coordination and deployment of a host of issues that usually bring down lesser talents. Ms. Diamond is now in Tracy Letts territory, and she has clearly got structural chops that better August Wilson's; I'm not sure she has her own unique voice yet - the sense that her language is connected deeply to her themes. (Right now her style is a little too Aaron-Sorkin-West-Wing-esque.) But that may come with time.

Of course it must be said that Diamond has been blessed with a remarkable production at the Huntington. Kenny Leon's direction is insightful and seamless, and while the entire cast is strong, there are particularly detailed, utterly-lived in characterizations from not only Salter and Iman, but also Rosie Benton (Kimber) and Billy Eugene Jones (Flip). (Just as an aside, the production also gives one hope, as it comes hot on the heels of All My Sons and Fences, that the Peter DuBois regime at the Huntington has finally found its feet.)

Yet great productions of new plays inevitably and appropriately give the spotlight over to the play itself - and its writer. Needless to say, my attitude toward Lydia R. Diamond has shifted from "Oh God - not her again!" to "Hmmm - how far can she really go?" In Stick Fly, her heroine is devoted to examining the various "bugs" she encounters; and my guess is that while the playwright has clearly taken a hint from her own character, she still hasn't quite managed to keep focus on what's in front of her. In other words, I think that with this very strong new play, Diamond has broken out of writing about who she is and what she wants, and has begun to write about what she has seen and what she knows. More, please.