Family Drama on Display in 'Stick Fly'

When you think of Martha's Vineyard, you might get an image of the Kennedy family hosting a clambake. But there has also been a significant black population living there since the colonial days. A new play called Stick Fly — airing on public radio stations — takes us into the family parlor to visit with a father, two sons, and the three women in their lives. Director Shirley Jo Finney and actors Carl Lumbly and Dule Hill join Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. When you think of Martha's Vineyard, you might get an image of the Kennedy family hosting a clam bake, but there's also been a significant black population living there since the colonial days. A new play called "Stick Fly" takes us into the family parlor to visit with a father, two sons and the three women in their lives. It hits issues from interracial relationships to what it means to be a man.

(Soundbite of play, "Stick Fly")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character): Not only is it problematic that we haven't stopped to consider racial tensions in our now-female-dominated society, but we haven't even begun to consider class.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) I'm not sure that class matters.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Son, I raised you better than that. This house has been full of octoroons and quadroons for three generations, and you think our loving white neighbors wouldn't rather we move over to the bluffs with the other negroes? Cheryl, could you top me off please, dear? You can just leave the bottle, thanks.

CHIDEYA: "Stick Fly" airs tomorrow on public radio stations and on XM Radio as part of the L.A. Theaterworks series The Play is the Thing.

Director Shirley Jo Finney and actors Carl Lumbly and Dule Hill join me in studio to talk about what it means to perform for radio, and the big issues the play tackles.

Ms. SHIRLEY JO FINNEY (Director, "Stick Fly"): To me, the play is about love and preserving the family, bottom line. Even though they talk about the socio-economics, they talk about race, and like there's all these different layers. But what happens - because all families have some type of secret - but what happens when you discover a lie and a betrayal? What happens to that structure, if the structure - be it a house, but also the structure of your body temple? And I think for me, that's the important thing about the - it's the base, the root. Don't you agree, Carl?

Mr. CARL LUMBLY (Actor): I do. In fact, I think that part of what was - I was drawn to was also the fact that people have different positions in families, and the difference between the way a father can love and the way a mother is allowed to love can sometimes be very, very difficult for children.

I think father love has to leave out certain aspects of nurturing and go for a tougher kind of a stance in terms of preparing people, especially young men, for making their way into the world. And then the position you have to take sort of putting yourself on a pedestal is one, that as time moves on and your children move to adulthood, you may be toppled off just by nature of the fact that the truth is not always harmonious.

CHIDEYA: A lot of folks know you from your television roles: "Psych," "West Wing." How is different? I mean, this is a real interesting hybrid, because you have a stage play, which people including me have seen, are seeing, and then you have the radio aspect. How do you play with those dynamics as an actor?

Mr. DULE HILL (Actor): Oh, the radio experience is really all about the words, which I said it's enjoyable to do because it's all about the words. Everything you do comes through the piece of dialogue you say. It's not about the air in between. It's all about putting into the words, and…

Ms. FINNEY: And it's really facilitating, because first there was the word. So it's really facilitating the writer.

CHIDEYA: Carl, what do you think of that kind of hybridity?

Mr. LUMBLY: Well, I love it because I think it's just another way to express your skill set.

Ms. FINNEY: I think it's very similar to what we're doing now with you, why people would listen to you. I think the voice carries the spirit, and you can tell when someone is lying just by the tone of the voice.

(Soundbite of play, "Stick Fly")

Mr. HILL: (As character) Yeah, this girl's a little melanin-challenged.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Melanin-challenged?

Mr. HILL: (As character) She's of the other persuasion.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Oh, not in the tribe, huh?

Mr. HILL: (As character) Look, she's cool, studies race dynamics in inner-city schools.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actress): (As character) as opposed to the outer-city?

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Oh, she white.

Mr. HILL: (As character) She's Italian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Class dynamics. The class dynamics in this play are hilarious. The fact that the two sons bring home two different women from two different branches of intelligence, female companionship that may not always sit well with the family, is hilarious.

Tell me about Kent's fiance, Taylor(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: What is there not to say about her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: Taylor is just a bag of - because of what's going on inside her, she likes to be the center of attention, or at least in the midst of it all. She can never just sit on the sideline and observe. Taylor will push me in the direction that I want to go in terms of writing and all of my artistic dreams when my father won't give me that.

Ms. FINNEY: I think each of the characters is trying to find placement, trying to find sense of self, and the illusion of father and his boundaries and the illusion of the world of structure, and here comes Taylor in this house for one weekend, and she's just buzzing around, affecting all of these people's lives. And it starts to unravel, and this secret starts to come apart.

(Soundbite of play, "Stick Fly")

Mr. HILL: (As Kent) And this is great-great-grandfather Wickham(ph), the great captain.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) He's so handsome.

Mr. HILL: (As character) Yeah, I got his good looks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) You know, I've seen this picture before.

Mr. HILL: (As character) Yeah, in your dad's book.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Of course.

Mr. HILL: (As Kent) Captain Wickham was never a slave. He was a shipper.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Of what?

Mr. HILL: (As character) We don't talk about that. Anyway, he saved the mayor's son from a boating accident. As a reward, the mayor gave him this land on which he built this house, making the Wickhams the first blacks to own land anywhere on the Vineyard.

CHIDEYA: Well, Carl, tell us a little bit about what you see in terms of the class dynamics, because there's - there are all these puzzle-boxes of secrets that unfold, but then you have all these tensions about what does it mean to be - what does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be rich and black? What does it mean to be light-skinned? Dark-skinned? All this stuff. What do you like most about the different aspects that get played with in this work?

Mr. LUMBLY: Well, one of the things I think I like most about the piece is that there are two women who are never seen who play as large a part in this piece as all of the people who are there. And I think that's part of what, you know, the class dynamic in this piece has to do with people who have place in this Vineyard situation.

They have something that they don't have outside of this place. Now no matter how rich the LeVeys(ph) may be, they will never have this same "class," quote-unquote, that they would have in the white world. But here on the Vineyard, they are the top of the heap, and poor Joseph has married into the top of the top of the heap. So even he, with all of his neurosurgeon monies, is still not class enough for the Wickham family.

Ms. FINNEY: Which is old-guard money.

Mr. LUMBLY: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Old-guard black money.

Ms. FINNEY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That's worth mentioning.

Ms. FINNEY: Right, I mean, and I just want to iterate, too, so there's - that this play takes place in the summer, three days on Martha's Vineyard, where the family has a summer home.

They went to the Vineyard because they could be themselves. You know, even though we are privileged and we work in the world and we're the doctors and the lawyers and the Indian chiefs in corporate America, etc., and having to navigate mainstream America, when they went to the Vineyard, they were social. They had interrelationships with their own. So it was that place of safety and comfort.

CHIDEYA: What about the concepts of manhood? Carl was talking a little bit earlier about the idea of father love versus mother love. Do you believe that there - it seems to me that during this play, there's a lot of discussion of what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a husband, what does it mean to be a father. And it also seems like a very important time to talk about those issues in our society when you have people like Bill Cosby discussing the impact.

What do you think of the dialogue between the two brothers, who have very different outlooks on what does it mean to be a man? Does it mean to do right economically? Does it mean to do right in terms of fidelity? Does it mean to do right emotionally?

Mr. LUMBLY: My son, at 19, arrived post-feminism. It was very, very important in his development. My father, pre-feminism. Very different way of articulating manhood. And I think in many ways, because I sort of - my experience spans both, I got the best of both. I think Kent is comparable to me in terms of the way men have been taught to be, and I think the difference between Kent, Spoon(ph) and Flip(ph), who is (unintelligible)…

CHIDEYA: The other son.

Mr. LUMBLY: …older son is that Joe could be more of a sibling with his older son, and he could cultivate more of the idea of reputation. Kent, because of his development, he's not as interested in reputation. He wants to treat women respectfully, and he has a sensitivity that he's very conversant with. It's a large part of who he is to the world.

CHIDEYA: But it doesn't seem as if Dr. LeVey's character respects that sensitivity.

Mr. LUMBLY: Well, he fears it, because I believe that's this whole thing about being sensitive. You want your sons to succeed in the world. And one of the big criticisms that Joe LeVey has about Kent is he's too soft, and as a soft, black male, you may get badly, badly hurt.

(Soundbite of play, "Stick Fly")

Mr. HILL: (as character) I'm 15, and all I want like every other 15-year-old boy, is to have a cute girl like me, maybe get to second base. But I'm thinking I can't because I've got some sort of, I don't know, testosterone deficiency. My daddy made me think that. Why? Because I give a (censored) about people? Because I don't put myself first? Because I hear what women say and actually like them for it?

Mr. LUMBLY: It was the same criticism that my father had for me. You're too soft.

Ms. FINNEY: Yes.

Mr. LUMBLY: You're too soft. What will happen when you meet adversity? And what I think that generation didn't understand is that there is a tremendous supple strength that is gained when you have both your manhood and a sense of femininity in hand.

I think in this play, especially Joseph LeVey is most thrilled at the end of the piece by the fact that he understands now that Kent speaks truth to power, and in a black family, man-to-man, son-to-father, that was not an easy thing to do. I remember when I did it, my father and I didn't speak for quite some time.

But now, in this piece, by speaking truth to power, he changes what his father thinks about him, and it's a moment of pride that - maybe not the moment of pride that Joseph LeVey thought it was going to get. It's far greater than that, because he suddenly now realizes just how strong his son is.

CHIDEYA: Shirley Jo, on a last note, and this may be a strange last note, are you the puppeteer? It doesn't seem as if being a director in this case is like being a puppeteer. It seems like you have some very…

Ms. FINNEY: I'd call myself a conductor.

CHIDEYA: There you go.

Ms. FINNEY: That's what I do. I conduct. I listen to the music, the emotional music that actors play, because that's their notes. And then when I read the score, it's my playwright's words. And I have to make sure that I cast the right instruments in the voicing so that you can take this journey, and the journey - you know, I know it's crazy, and I'm non-sequitur and fragmented, but it's the drum. What is the drum? What rhythm of the drum does this have?

CHIDEYA: Well Shirley Jo, Carl, Dule, thank you for coming in.

Ms. FINNEY: Thank you.

Mr. LUMBLY: My pleasure.

Mr. HILL: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: We were talking to director Shirley Jo Finney and actors Carl Lumbly and Dule Hill. "Stick Fly" airs tomorrow on public radio stations and XM radio as part of the L.A. Theaterworks series The Play is the Thing.

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