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'Stick Fly' playwright has a feel for the nuances of race and class

December 8, 2011 |  1:28 pm


The complications of class and race—and the gradations of such among African Americans—are among the themes in Lydia R. Diamond’s domestic comedy, "Stick Fly,"  directed by Kenny Leon with pop singer Alicia Keys as its above-the-title producer. It opens on Broadway Thursday night.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays Joseph LeVay, an affluent neurosurgeon who has married into one of Martha's Vineyard’s first black families unstained by the legacy of slavery. Despite his status as lord of Vineyard manse, the good doctor keeps true to his working-class roots. In the early moments of the play, he dives into a hidden stash of pickled pigs feet, which he relishes with hot sauce—a culinary treat looked upon with some disdain by his well-born wife and his ambitious sons, played by Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer.

Other characters include Cheryl, the smart and sassy 18-year-old daughter of the LeVays’ maid, and the two sons' girlfriends: Taylor, a Johns Hopkins entomologist, and Kimberly, a wealthy WASP who works with inner-city children on achievement gap issues.      
When  Diamond is asked if the savvy Cheryl, like Dr. LeVay, at times chooses to use less-than-perfect English in her banter with the high-IQ household,  the playwright says, “Oh, you mean  ‘code switching’?”

Asked to explain,  Diamond  says that African Americans,  in the company of non-blacks, will often speak what she terms “the king’s English.” But once they are among themselves, they will  “code switch,” revert to speaking a black vernacular which. 
“There is a black dialect, as legitimate as a Boston dialect, that comes out of the Southern immigration that is often dismissed as people not having a grasp on the king’s English,” says Diamond. “And Cheryl and Dr. LeVay are as comfortable linguistically with this dialect as they are in speaking the king’s English, while the other characters in the play, Taylor, for example, might find it hard fitting in should she find herself in a Laundromat in the West Side of Chicago.”
Diamond says she once shared Taylor’s predicament as a student at Northwestern University with a roommate who was slow to warm to her. A child of academics in Southern Illinois, she had not been exposed to black urban dialect. “My roommate was a young black woman who’d been educated at Andover and was from the Chicago area and only three months into term did she finally speak up about what was bothering her,” recalls Diamond.  “She told me, ‘You know I couldn’t understand why you didn’t drop  [the king’s English]  when we were together and then I met your parents and heard you talking to them and I understood, ‘Oh, that’s just the way you talk all the time.’ I wasn’t dexterous in code-switching.
“I’m still not, really,” Diamond adds with  a laugh.  “If I try to say something ‘down,’ people make fun of me.  ‘We’re going to take away your black card, Lydia.’   But I have a nice community of friends who are understanding, are dexterous about code-switching and have a comfort zone around it and an affection for it.”

Read an interview with Diamond about "Stick Fly" here.

--Patrick Pacheco

Above: Mekhi Phifer, Rosie Benton, Tracie Thoms and Dule Hill in "Stick Fly." Credit: Richard Termine