Pride And Privilege — And Prejudice — On Stage In U.S. dramas, African-Americans are often limited to portraying impoverished characters, like slaves or street thugs. So Lydia Diamond wrote a play about the opposite: An extremely wealthy black family vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.
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Pride And Privilege — And Prejudice — On Stage

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Pride And Privilege — And Prejudice — On Stage

Pride And Privilege — And Prejudice — On Stage

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The playwright Lydia Diamond is not happy about how African-American characters are portrayed onstage. Her complaint is one you often hear in theater, that African-Americans are pigeonholed into playing the impoverished character - the slave, the street thug. So Lydia Diamond wrote a play about the opposite: extremely wealthy African-Americans vacationing on Marthas Vineyard. NPRs Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The family in "Stick Fly" is old money - think the Kennedys -and yet ...

Ms. LYDIA DIAMOND: (Playwright) They live in a world that doesnt even know, really, that they exist.

BLAIR: In one scene, a plastic surgeon tells his family about a time he was in Pottery Barn, and a white sales girl followed him around. (Soundbite of stage play, "Stick Fly")

Unidentified Man #1: I saw this blonde sales girl; shes just on me. So I say, look. Ive traveled all over the world. Im a doctor, damn it. Why do you want to swipe me like that?

Ms. DIAMOND: And he says, what am I going to steal from Pottery Barn? This isnt unlike conversations that Ive had with my own family. The privilege doesnt necessarily shelter them from the prejudice thats sort of woven into the fabric of our society.

BLAIR: Lydia Diamond didn't grow up in a family with a lot of money, but her mom was an academic. And that, she says, gave her access to the privileged and the powerful. So when Diamond went into theater, she got tired of seeing mostly downtrodden black characters.

Ms. DIAMOND: I started out, also, as an actress. And I remember thinking, wow. I wish I could be in a play where I got to wear pretty clothes and didn't have to be in gunny sack.

BLAIR: There are no gunny sack-wearing slaves in "Stick Fly," nor are there any drug dealers. In this family, there are two doctors, a socialite, and an artist whos dating an entomologist whos fascinated with the bugs at the beach house.

(Soundbite of "Stick Fly")

Unidentified Woman #1: Your specimens up here are a little different than the ones I see every day.

Unidentified Woman #2: Specimens?

Unidentified Woman #1: Insects, I study them. The household fly, mostly. But Ill collect whatever, you know?

Unidentified Woman #2: Sure.

BLAIR: And remember that Pottery Barn scene when the son, whos a doctor, resents being followed around by a sales girl because he is a...

Unidentified Man #1: Well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled person.

Unidentified Man #2: So remind...

BLAIR: But his superiority offends the familys maid.

Unidentified Woman #3: So they should follow around a guy who works for, say, the phone company, just not you?

BLAIR: With "Stick Fly," Lydia Diamond makes the point that there are complex individuals within a race, within a social class, within a family, says theater director Derek Sanders.

Mr. DEREK SANDERS (Theater Director): That different hues of gray, of terms of race and class and how they divide is something that is very - kind of delicate, and I think Lydia nailed it.

BLAIR: Sanders is co-founder of Congo Square Theater in Chicago, where "Stick Fly" premiered. Years ago, Lydia Diamond said: America has a real comfort zone with seeing African-Americans in certain ways. In short, oppressed. So Diamond decided there was enough of that already and said to herself...

Ms. DIAMOND: I will never, I will never write a slave play.

BLAIR: But Diamond says shes loosened up since then. One of her most recent plays is about Harriet Jacobs, a real slave who hid in an attic for almost seven years.

Ms. DIAMOND: Ive had to sort of back off of my real judgment at like, well, the last thing we need in the world is another play about slaves, because I think theres something actually very interesting about the way we havent been taught our own history.

BLAIR: Lydia Diamonds play about Harriet Jacobs is currently at the Underground Railroad Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the next few months, "Stick Fly" is onstage in D.C., Boston and Houston.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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