Stick Fly opened last week on Broadway -- produced by Alicia Keys, written by Lydia Diamond and directed by Kenny Leon -- to positively mixed reviews -- including one perfectly titled "Guess Who's Coming to Martha's Vineyard?"
That's because this play, billed as an explosive comedy of manners, centers on the dynamic of an accomplished, upper class African-American family during a summer weekend at their vacation home in Massachusetts. The focus is on two brothers, one a fledging writer named Kent "Spoon" Levay and played by West Wing and Psych star Dule Hill and the other, an arrogant and overly-confident plastic surgeon named Flip played by ER and 8 Mile star Mekhi Phifer. Spoon is bringing his fiancé, an insecure academic, (Tracie Thoms) to meet the family and Flip is bringing his latest conquest (Rosie Benton) who is, uh, "melanin-challenged" read white. And hilarious.
A plot twist includes a revelatory performance by Condola Rashad who plays the housekeeper's daughter -- she starred in last year's Ruined, and is both the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad and an extraordinary actor. She just about steals the show but this piece is about The Brothers.
I interviewed both Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer about their collaboration, the message of the play and what's next.
NDP: You play brothers -- what's the real relationship?
It's been a blast, I've known Mekhi for 13 years and this was the first time we've had a chance to work together although he's also appearing in an episode of Psych that will air this coming February.
I've always been a fan of his work, his chops as an actor and to work across from him everyday has been a great experience -- working with him gave me a chance to grow as an artist.
Our closeness and our friendship actually helps because we don't have to fabricate that -- there's a mutual respect there that's there between the brothers, but in terms of the roles we have in the play we're polar opposites,
It's wonderful, we're still in the mix of it and we're having a great time. Aside from the creative process and pleasing the audiences you do get to work with people who are not only your friends but who are talented and good at what they do -- and that's always a blessing when you like the person whom you are playing opposite. After the shows over we have drinks, we hang out, we talk about it -- it's very much like being in college.
The point of being an actor is that you take small part of yourself and bring that to the larger role. II think there are aspects of both characters in both of us. Dule's character is more of the sensitive type, more thoughtful and more insightful -- he's a writer. My character lacks a filter -- he doesn't really apologize, his unapologetic for his words and his stance. Dule's character is more thought-based, mine is more based on impulse.
NDP: Tell me your favorite message of this play.
We're all on a journey trying to find ourselves and own who we are. Even when people appear to have it together they have issues they are working out and that's what I see in this play. Everyone has their issues, some people cover it up more than others, everyone trying to find their space in the world -- and that's something I think most people can relate to.
The biggest movie stars, even the president, have their issues, their insecurities, their journeys and things to work through and we forget that. We see people in our culture, we see people we celebrate and we think oh, they have it all together but really behind it all we all have stuff to deal with. That's what I like about Stick Fly -- Lydia Diamond did a great job of highlighting that.
And the fact that we don't talk about it. There are so many things in this play that are unsaid, even more what's unsaid than what is said, and that happens in real life too. A lot of things like our insecurities, like us trying to get comfortable with ourselves and owning ourselves, we don't talk about it. Instead we put up this façade, well, a barrier anyway, And that's like a personal journey for me, trying to own who I am and not fit in a mold of what people think I should be.
What speaks to me is family. Just family. We have some socio-economic bantering, and some race issues that really dissipate in the second act; it's really just family. And there's no one theme to leave with -- that's what I love about this play -- it doesn't end with everyone standing up in a circle hugging and singing Kumbaya. It's more like 'Damn, this weekend was rough and lots of dirty laundry was aired but we're all going to come back for Christmas.'
We want people walking away and just saying "this was a family" whether it's black, white, Asian or Latino... it's family."
NDP: Both of you are known for TV roles on West Wing and ER that have not been particularly centered on race - what is it like being in a play that is more focused on issues of color and class in America?
A lot of the characters I have played, especially on television, have been one of the few persons of color on screen. But I think when you're dealing with a family of African Americans as we do in Stick Fly, you can't help but talk more about race -- especially when it's a family that's black in America. I think that's why there may be more talk about race in this play than in Psych or even West Wing -- where we still talked about race but not as much. Still, what attracted me to this project was that it is not solely about race because a lot of the scenes and what is talked about is universal -- it's from their point of view but beyond just being an African American family.
The reality is that I am African American and I am in America -- so issues can come up as we all know. But me as Mekhi? That's a universal person. And I can speak to many different themes, to many different races -- because I'm friends with and I work with and I'm around with many different races.
I don't have a problem speaking on the African American experience at all because there are a multitude of African American experiences -- all the way from the ghetto to the Hamptons; all the way from being in jail to being P. Diddy.
There's a multitude of experiences so it's actually a pleasure to play the non-stereotype of what is not always depicted as the African American lifestyle. So it is fun to play someone who is totally different and what you're not used to seeing.
We're as prestigious as the Cosbys but we're a lot more edgy.
NDP: What's been the biggest difference between television and film versus live theater?
In theater you go through this journey of the character every day. A complete journey. On television and in film you do one piece of it one day, another piece another day. And in series television the character is always evolving. The character evolves on stage, too -- but within the confines of the script. You go through the whole emotional journey every day.
You can't try to replicate what you did the day before... you're saying the same words but you're finding new moments -- you're in dark corners and you're shining lights on that.
These changes make it a different play you see in November as compared to the play you see in January or even April. If we're doing our job as our characters and as a unit on stage the play should be growing also... It stays fresh as long as you stay engaged.
To be quite honest I love acting, I love doing this -- I love being out there -- getting paid to play. The problems and challenges are high class problems -- most people would not sympathize with my problems because this is such a blessing!
But I'd say biggest challenge keeping it fresh every night and fresh for every performance, because we realize each audience is new and hasn't seen this play before -- we want to make it fun and a great journey,
That's what being a professional is all about -- that's what's being an artist is all about -- really what you do is put yourself out there and have people judge you. You have the critics and the people in the audience so you need a certain fortitude and a strength in one's self to do this. Remember that recent poll that revealed the number one fear people have is speaking in public? So to get out there and have people look at you and judge you and give a performance to about 900 to a thousand people every night and keep it fresh is a feat unto itself.
NDP: I want to read you a quote from a recent Washington Post article about African American playwrights from Lynn Nottage, author of Ruined:
"There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before," she avers. "But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it's partly because we're shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium."
She points out that concurrently, Broadway is noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued. Today, that power can be seen everywhere, from touring productions of the comedies by Tyler Perry to the casting of major black actors in classics such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the current season's impending A Streetcar Named Desire, with Blair Underwood as Stanley.
"I think there's a sense in the industry that there's a black audience out there interested and engaged," Nottage says. "That audience was nourished -- for better or worse -- by Tyler Perry, and is looking for slightly more sophisticated fare."
I would assume that our play has more of an African American audience than the average Broadway show but it's not strictly for that audience. This play can be seen by anyone but yes, Stick Fly is bringing in more of an African American audience to Broadway houses which I think is a good thing. I agree with Lynn that these voices have been shut out for a long time and there is an audience that wants to be involved and plays like this draw them in.
We definitely have an African American audience but the beautiful thing is we have a multi-cultural audience as well. The themes are American -- the themes are people -- the themes are not people who are just black -- once you get past some of the socio-economic bantering we're past black -- we're just people. That's what's so lovely about Stick Fly.
NDP: What about Stick Fly -- The Film?
That's a really good question. It would be interesting to have these actors and this wonderful director -- but that's an Alicia Keys question!
I think a TV version would be even better! This family is just so very rich -- not just money wise -- there's a lot going on. The play itself is already like a movie, what would be even more advantageous is an extension of this family which would really delve into character.
I'd like to see the themes and characters play out for an entire season on television -- and it would be fun to star with Dule. He's my brother -- not biologically but in essence and spirit. This play, a movie a series -- I want to do it all with him!