The lights are blinding. I can barely see. I’m sitting on stage at the majestic Cort Theatre on Broadway, waiting to interview Alicia Keys about her play Stick Fly. That’s right, a theater production — and not a musical show. Then, with a huge welcoming smile on her face, Alicia appears on stage, looking very much at home.
“Broadway is like a dream for me,” she says, her eyes glistening. “The streets I grew up on are right here. Broadway to me is a big barometer of what I call the light and the dark,” she continues, referring to her old neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, just blocks from New York City’s theater district. “There was a lot of darkness I had to pass through to get to the light of Broadway, the big dreams.”
Keys co-produced the Broadway play Stick Fly, in addition to composing the music that fills the transitions between scenes. Her name is prominently displayed on the marquee and has certainly been a box-office draw. Stick Fly is an entertaining comedic drama about an upper-middle-class African-American family, the LeVays, spending a weekend at their home on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s tension, conflict, and lots of laughs, as the two adult sons bring their girlfriends home to meet the family for the first time. And Dad, a neurosurgeon, is forced to confront a secret that’s been hidden in the family closet for years.
A universal experience, Stick Fly shows a family stuck together for the weekend. No one can leave the house or the island, which is part of the metaphor for the play’s title.
Stick Fly, and Keys, also are part of something that has perhaps never happened before on the Great White Way. The current Broadway season has had five productions featuring African-American storylines. Along with Stick Fly, there was The Mountaintop, with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett starring in a drama about the final hours of the life of Martin Luther King. There’s Gershwin’s enduring classic Porgy and Bess. And arriving this spring, A Streetcar Named Desire in revival will feature a multiracial cast. The coming play Magic/Bird, about the two retired NBA stars’ competitive and personal relationship, is also a highly anticipated offering.
What is certainly historic this season is that three of those productions were written by African-American women. Suzan-Lori Parks penned Porgy and Bess. Katori Hall, one of theGrio’s 100 class of 2012, wrote The Mountaintop. And Lydia Diamond, a professor at Boston University, who we recently visited, wrote Stick Fly.
“I don’t know any playwright who writes a play so that one day it will be on Broadway,” Diamond told us in her cozy office filled with family pictures and keepsakes. “It’s sort of like winning the Lotto of playwriting.”
“It’s really exciting, really, really exciting, ” she went on. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Amazing, but how enduring for blacks? About 30 plays open on Broadway every season. The five black plays that are part of this season’s productions do not make up a huge percentage. People of color in attendance make up a smaller portion of the box office, with 76 percent of tickets being sold to whites. But last year, despite the down economy, Broadway posted record revenue numbers. And some who keep an eye on Broadway have said the increased number of diverse offerings is one reason for that.
Sharon Jensen of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts says there is “more understanding in the industry of who we are as a country,” of the rise in plays about black life. She noted that there has definitely been “a shift” to more diverse voices and experiences on stage. The bottom line, however, is that “everyone agrees there’s still a long way to go,” Jensen said about this trend.
How far have blacks come? Playwright Lydia Diamond reflected back on the days when she was an actor. “I didn’t get to play characters that even got to wear pretty clothes on stage, ” she wistfully recalled. That is something else that makes Stick Fly cutting edge. The black folks in the play are doctors, a writer, a PhD candidate and a student about to graduate from a top high school.
“I read it — and I was literally up all night,” actor Tracie Thoms, one of Stick Fly’s stars, said during a chat between the cast members and the audience on a recent Monday night. “I had never seen a character this complicated on the page for an African-American woman.”
Images of African-Americans portrayed in popular entertainment have certainly changed, and Stick Fly is applauded for its richer portrayal of wealthier blacks. However, critics point out that Broadway and the so-called “dramatic arts” have yet to catch up to representations of blacks in television or film. (The Cosby Show — hailed as the first portrayal of upper middle class blacks — debuted in 1984.) Even on the big screen, some critics find it bittersweet that the only two black actors nominated for Oscars this year, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer from The Help, both played domestic servants.
Things change but also stay the same when it comes to images of African-Americans. Looking back, the first African-American to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in 1940, who played a maid in Gone With The Wind. Some see current plays featuring blacks, like Porgy and Bess, as reviving similar stereotypes.
Stick Fly breaks this mold, at least, by offering a new glimpse of upwardly-mobile black life never before seen on the Broadway stage. Meanwhile, the push for more diversity on Broadway continues. And it’s not just incredibly challenging to get to Broadway — staying there also is extremely tough. Stick Fly just announced that it will end what will be a three-month run on the last Sunday of this month.
This bittersweet news comes on the heels of the announcement that The Mountaintop finished its Broadway run with a profit on its $3.1 million investment. So there is progress in the midst of challenge.
Back on stage at the Cort Theatre, I asked Alicia Keys what made her decide to put all of her star power behind a play like Stick Fly.
“The fact that it was different, that you learned about a family that you won’t often see,” she concluded about the importance of this play to Broadway and black representation. “How many times have we seen an affluent black family at Martha’s Vineyard on Broadway?”
We both answered the question, “Never.”