I had to smile Wednesday at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, as Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” played during “Stick Fly.”
Lydia R. Diamond’s play is the most unsentimental I’ve seen in a long time, a Eugene O’Neill drama built around an upper-class black family on Martha’s Vineyard. This shouldn’t be quite such a long day’s journey into night; it needs to pick up steam, especially in Act 2, and send us home 10 minutes earlier. But when it does, audiences will be sitting on a powder keg.
Diamond puts us in fresh territory just by her choice of characters. Joseph (Douglas Welton), a neurosurgeon with another home in Vail, Colo., has raised two sons: womanizing plastic surgeon Flip (Jeremy DeCarlos) and sensitive Kent (Rahsheem Shabazz), who has gone through law and business schools before deciding to be a novelist.
The sons bring home women, partially for parental approval. Kent has Taylor (Brandi Nicole Feemster), an entomologist whose feelings lie close to the surface; Flip has sociologist Kimber (Moriah Thomason), who keeps her emotional cards close to her vest. Each may have shock value for the matriarch, who’s taking as long to arrive as Godot: Taylor comes from a lower economic strata, and Kimber is white.
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Diamond ponders race, class and relationships, reminding us that wealth needn’t mean privilege and privilege doesn’t invariably beget happiness. We seldom see black characters onstage debating the meanings of “intrinsic” and “implicit” or talking about Max Weber’s theory of social stratification, so the play seems fresh from the start.
It’s also full of good talk, bursts of anger and exultation and shame and recrimination. The sixth character is Cheryl (Reneé Welsh Noel), a maid’s daughter who’s more than a servant and not quite a family friend, and she adds layers to an already dense drama.
But there’s a lot of talk. Director Martin Damien Wilkins knows this must move at top speed, and he keeps it flowing through the first act. It slows in the second: A revelation (which we’ve already guessed) and the scenes that follow move in fits and starts.
That’s partly because Welton and Noel aren’t yet comfortable in their characters’ skins. He seemed to struggle with lines, she with the large emotional demands required of a character who erupts out of passivity into passion.
The siblings and their mates get the most complete characters – kindly, insecure, prone to lashing out and then giving or seeking forgiveness – and the four actors make the most of them. Feemster and Thomason (an ATC newcomer) especially keep us off balance, trying to figure out if these women are justified in what they say and do.
Like O’Neill, Diamond doesn’t believe in easy endings: Some characters stay mired in their lives, some see a way forward yet may not take it. Kent, the most optimistic, remarks that a work of art is strongest when it’s so specific that it pulls us into the creator’s world and makes us believe what we see, and “Stick Fly” proves that to be true.
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte does Lydia Diamond’s play about upper-class African-American sons who bring their girlfriends – one white, one black – to Martha’s Vineyard to meet their parents.
WHEN: Through March 7 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Also 2:30 p.m. March 1.
WHERE: 650 E. Stonewall St.
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes.