Telling a "black" story that is free of stereotypes can be the most elusive project to undertake. When the story being told reflects the lives of the black elite, the challenges become even more daunting. This is why Stick Fly, at the Cort Theatre on Broadway, is such a hauntingly successful surprise. Well, in a way. When you take a moment to look at the making of this project, it makes sense that it would be better than good.
The writer, Lydia R. Diamond, proves herself to be smart, knowledgeable and pretty much great at storytelling. Veteran director Kenny Leon, who also helmed The Mountaintop — which is currently running on Broadway — displays a masterful command of the material and the actors. The ensemble cast? In a word: stellar.
For me, the telling sign is the fuel behind the Broadway production: Alicia Keys. I worked with her years ago, right before she launched her musical career. I remember from the day we met that she was driven to perfection. She didn't do things halfway. She gave each project her all, studying until she mastered whatever task was before her, not accepting anything that didn't resonate within her. Even more, Alicia always appreciated subtlety, even when she was new to the game.
So, for her to be the driving force — as a producer and as the composer of the music performed during the play — behind a writer's dream to make it to the Great White Way makes sense.
And trust that she, the story and the cast do not disappoint. Stick Fly is set in a classically elite area of the country where blacks have also shared space for years: Martha's Vineyard. While commonly envisioned as an idyllic location, in this case it is the setting for the unfurling of secrets from years of familial pain. It also becomes the epicenter of an alcohol-infused conversation that strips away stereotypes and unmasks both racist and confused beliefs about values and integrity.
Without giving too much away, the story is about two brothers — played by Dulé Hill (Psych) and Mekhi Phifer (ER, Soul Food) — who decide to bring home the women in their lives to meet the family. What happens afterward forces the family to face conflicts about its past and come to grips with how grown children are living their lives.
Thanks to superb acting from all six cast members — Hill, Phifer, Tracie Thoms (Without a Trace), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (everything), Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad (Phylicia Rashad's daughter, who boldly makes her Broadway debut) — the audience is in for a completely engaging, perfectly paced 2 1/2 hours of a revelatory history lesson about what really happens inside the four walls at some families' homes.
Throughout this play, there is a well-balanced mix of humor and drama, fueled by the fact that 90 percent of the time, someone onstage is being served some type of alcoholic beverage. While every actor does an outstanding job, Thoms really captivates from the moment she takes the stage, playing the role of a woman with one foot in and one foot outside the black elite. Her character struggles with issues of worthiness throughout the play, raising questions about what happens when Daddy leaves home and starts another family and rejects you, and generally about how to claim stable footing when you've never known what it is.
Rashad explodes onstage as a brilliant, confused and sometimes self-righteous daughter of the family maid. Her acting is so on point that she triggers genuine emotion in the audience, including several bouts of real tears. And of course, the seasoned Santiago-Hudson steps into the role of the crumbling patriarch who is forced to face his demons before the pained audience of his own grown children.
Hill, who plays the younger son whose career goals don't mesh with his daddy's dreams for him, reflects the pain that a young man can have when he doesn't live up to his father's expectations. If there's one thing that's annoying about him, it is that he's constantly pawing his fiancee, played by Thoms, but it never feels intimate.
Phifer plays the big brother with the appropriate bravado. Benton, the sole white actor in the play, tight-walks between being a traditional white liberal who doesn't quite get why black people are offended by some of the things she says to someone who bares her soul and shows her vulnerability.
Stick Fly is must-see theater. The play provides a nuanced look into contemporary black life in a way that doesn't demean or speak down to the audience. Instead, it makes you think.
Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media. Follow her on Twitter.