To stick with family or to fly away. Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly is what Broadway is all about. Writing regionally produced plays for 20 years including The Bluest Eye, an adaptation of Nobel Prize winning Toni Morrison's novel, Diamond, is making her Broadway debut with Stick Fly.
She teaches playwriting at Boston University and has taught at Columbia College Chicago. A working wife with a 7-year-old son, Baylor, she holds a bachelor's degree in theatre and performance studies from Northwestern University.
With three African-American female playwrights represented on Broadway this season for the first time, how does it feel to be a part of history?
LD: It would be great if Broadway could look like the subway. There's playwright David Henry Hwang's show Chinglish. I am a great admirer of his work. Our voices are being heard. We must stay sober and keep our eyes on the prize and keep expanding so that it is not just one moment.
What is it like working with 14-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys who is making her Broadway debut, too?
LD: Alicia Keys came to rehearsal and to watch her composing original music as she watched the show, I could see the gears going in her head which was exciting. She also does talkbacks involving the audience after some of the shows.
How did Alicia Keys come to be involved as one of the producers of Stick Fly ?
LD: Through Stick Fly's director Kenny Leon. Kenny worked with her before. He directed a tour of hers.
When my niece and I were sitting in the audience watching Stick Fly Thanksgiving weekend, at first I thought it was going to be Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in reverse. But that's not what the play is about.
LD: That's where we go because that is the only mainstream reference we know. I don't think the play does that. Unlike Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Stick Fly deals with two women [one white, the other black] who have slept with the same guy.
As the curtain closes in Stick Fly, the audience comes to realize it's all about the maid played by Condola Rashad, the daughter of The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad.
LD: Condola's eyes are so liquid. She's so heartbreaking in her role of the maid Cheryl in Stick Fly.
What is your take on there being so many productions right now telling the stories of African-American maids such as Golden Globe winner Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help, Katori Hall's The Mountaintop and your own play, Stick Fly?
LD: It just happened. I wrote Stick Fly six years ago. The mainstream has a comfort zone with a certain type of telling of African-American stories. My grandmother has a master's degree. Her day job was that of an educator, a teacher. But she also worked as a maid sometimes to buy things she couldn't afford on a teaching salary like a nice desk for a family member.
What was opening night like for your Broadway debut?
LD: I was so thankful to all the people who have given me so many opportunities over the years. To my director Kenny Leon who I wrote a letter to years ago and that is how we got together. To Martha Lavey at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago who was instrumental in the development of my career. I was thrilled to see all the celebrities who attended our show on opening night like Gayle King [ a co-host of the new CBS This Morning].
What about Oprah? Was she there with her friend Gayle?
LD: I did not see Oprah. I have never met her, but I did sit in the audience for her show when Denzel Washington was her guest.
All six actors in Stick Fly fit their roles so perfectly. Were you involved in the casting?
LD: Yes. Casting is a collaborative process, but ultimately should be with the director because he is the one who has a relationship with the actors as they rehearse the play. Kenny Leon has a real knack for choosing the right actor for the role. He was also the director for productions of Stick Fly at the Huntington Theatre Company (Boston), the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) and his own True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta.
How did you become so good at writing dialogue?
LD: It's just the way my brain works. I have always been an observer. I have always enjoyed the dynamics of social interaction, the rhythms of life. I take great pains not to put stereotypes, archetypes on stage. I want everyone to be complicated and contradicted.
You really nailed Rosie Benton's character, Kimber, the WASP in Stick Fly.
LD: I did not want her to be weak. I wrote her flawed and funny. I did not want the audience to villain-ize her.
Do you borrow incidents and people from your own life when you write?
LD: Yes. In Stick Fly, Kimber (Rosie Benton) who plays the WASP girlfriend of Mekhi Phifer, is doing the type of work my husband John does as an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Gift Horse, produced at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is my most autobiographical. It was directed by my good friend, Chuck Smith and won the 2000-2001 Theodore Ward Prize for African-American playwriting.
Publicly, you have expressed disappointment about black history seeming to be relegated to just February in most of our nation's schools and that the history of slavery in particular has been sanitized. That students who saw Harriet Jacobs at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre were surprised when they learned about her through your play for the first time.
LD: It has been my experience that students don't know as much as they should. That's because we adults have not communicated enough with them about slavery in the context of money, power, and maintaining wealth. It was not just about a bunch of Black people being victimized. They only know about the other Harriet -- Harriet Tubman. Slavery is also about the United States having an ugly reality and my ancestors being survivors.
Your play Harriet Jacobs is a slave narrative.
LD: Actors turned down the role of Harriet Jacobs because of the shame of slavery. It was unusual that she could read and write but probably more slaves could than we know. People are industrious. They hid their ability to read and write because they could have gotten killed for it. The history of a people who haven't been valued in society often disappears or gets buried. Women inventors and scientists are another example. We only were taught about Madame Curie in school.
Why Northwestern University?
LD: I went there to be an actress. I was an actress for 10 years before I got into playwriting. Charles Smith was my mentor.
When you were acting, what was your favorite gig?
LD: Doing my one-woman show, Here I Am... See Can You Handle It. It is funny, challenging and in your face. It is my adaptation of the work of poet Nikki Giovanni. I was also hugely influenced by Whoopi Goldberg and Spaulding Gray.
Of all your plays, your favorite is...?
LD: My favorite is Voyeur de Venus. It was commissioned by Martha Lavey at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre where it premiered and won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work. The work does not lend itself to safety. It is about an African woman in the 1800s who is put on display in England because of Europeans' fascination with her physical attributes. A mold is made of her body. There were no photos in those days. She was a large woman, and there were different standards of beauty in European culture and African culture.
Will there be a film of Stick Fly?
LD: That conversation has not happened yet. It's not time to talk about what's next. An open run of a show is still new to me.
What advice would you give to budding playwrights out there?
LD: Know you are a playwright because you have written a play whether it is produced or not. A reading of your play is important to do. Make some chili or shepherd's pie for your guests like I do. Have actors read your play out loud in your living room so you can hear it and work on it where's it's safe -- safe from the input of voices you're not yet ready for.