Acclaimed Playwright Lydia R. Diamond discusses her work, Stick Fly

Photo credit: Everyman Theatre

Lydia R. Diamond is juggling it all this morning – battling a cold, caring for her young child, and taking a quick call from Mom – moments before we begin talking about her play, Stick Fly, currently at Everyman Theatre. Although it is new to Baltimore audiences, for several years the piece has received critical acclaim including the ’10 LA Drama Critics Circle Award – Playwriting and Best Production and the ’10 LA Garland – Playwriting among other honors. Developed in part at Chicago Dramatists, its original production took place at Congo Square Theatre Center.

Stick Fly portrays a segment of African-American life that is rarely represented in theatre, film or television – the experience of the upper class. Audiences meet the LeVay family with patriarch Joseph LeVay, an accomplished neurosurgeon, his Ivy League-educated sons, Flip, a plastic surgeon and Kent, an up-and-coming writer.

The men are accompanied by their significant others; Flip’s girlfriend is a wealthy white woman who works with youth of color in the inner city. Taylor, Kent’s fiancée, reared by a college professor single mother of modest means is an entomologist. Finally, there is Cheryl, a bright young woman who is the daughter of the family’s maid. Her presence forces the characters to confront uncomfortable truths.

While Diamond says this is not an autobiographical play, she does identify with Taylor. “I think socioeconomically I most identify with Taylor.” Not unlike her, the playwright spent her childhood with a single mother who was also a college professor. “We moved around a lot. I was often in places where I was the only one or one of very few people of color.”

The impact, it appears, is complex. “I had high levels of race consciousness because of my mother, but not a huge support system and a place to put it… I was just sort of stewing in it, and feeling very alone all the time.” Perhaps this early solitude birthed an imagination which now simultaneously questions and entertains.

Like other talented artists, Diamond finds inspiration in many places. After hearing a piece on NPR about an entomologist and their study of fly patterns, Stick Fly came together more cohesively. “Although the characters and situations had been floating in my head for some time, I just thought it was a beautiful and really interesting metaphor.”

All in all, for Diamond, this work is about relationships which she doesn’t view solely in the context of the African-American community or even more specifically, African-American women’s backgrounds. “All women of all races, all people, wear scars or the healthy part of their relationships with their parents.” Yet for her, this does not eliminate the unique situation of African-American men. “There is certainly enough cards stacked against African-American men that perhaps the fall out is more immediate and tangible.” However, when we look at men and the presence of fathers across the board, “[those] of all colors behave badly.”

Diamond’s adept ear for dialogue at once profound and humorous confronts audiences, and makes it difficult to ignore the complexities of not only familial dynamics but race, class and gender. “In the process of writing, I’m not terribly conscious of it.” Likening this to how one plays with dolls in childhood, she explains: “I put them [characters] in rooms, and let them talk to one another. I think it’s just a little bit of the way [that] my brain works. It’s been hard wired to have a very natural understanding of the rhythms [of dialogue].”

Seven years ago, shortly after a public reading of the play’s first act, Derrick Sanders, founding artistic director of Congo Square Theatre, produced it. Overall, the initial completion did not take long. “But then I spent a lot of time over the next five years finessing it; major rewrites during the first production, and then several during the next three productions.”

Between motherhood and teaching responsibilities, the writing process has shifted. “Before I was a Mom, I had lots of ideas in my head, and I spent lots of time with myself just sort of fantasizing and thinking about them. I would write a play relatively quickly having lived with the characters for a long time, sometimes a year, sometimes more.” Since becoming a Mom, recent projects include adaptations of other works such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Still, Diamond does reveal that for the first time in several years, a new play, Smart People, is near completion.

Acting, an early passion, led her to writing plays while attending Northwestern University in the late 1980s. Eventually studying with Charles Smith, the sole African-American faculty member in the theatre department there. Smith’s pieces, which delve into society’s reading of politics and race, have appeared in off-Broadway and regional theatres throughout the U.S.

For Diamond, these kinds of connections to one another are critical in the continuation of this art form. “I do think there is an importance in mentoring people in the theatre or it will go away; it won’t be theatre if you don’t teach young people how to value it, how to do it.”

Unlike some playwrights, she did not go through a painful period of finding her own voice while reading the works of others; although exposure to Edward Albee, Alice Childress, August Wilson is evident. “I was fortunate enough to be able to find my own voice before really understanding theirs.”

Like Smith, she too is an educator. As Assistant Professor of  Playwriting and Theatre Arts at Boston University, she finds that teaching enriches the work in numerous ways. “It keeps me humble. Often I have students who are so talented. There is nothing more humbling than struggling in the middle of a play, and having a student turn in a play that is so good, or has the potential to be so good. It reminds me that there are brilliant voices all over the universe, and you’re not that special.”

Her advice to aspiring playwrights? Just do it. “I don’t know if there are any aspiring playwrights. I think there are only playwrights.” Initiative is critical – reach out to mentors, take classes, produce your play in several spaces (e.g. your church or basement). “Once the play is out there in the theatre community, it will find its way on stage.”

Patrons of theatre have certainly found her work, and they are connecting to it, performance by performance. Before our talk ends, when I ask what she hopes audiences will gain, she says: “I hope that people will feel that they have seen something that is good … I hope they will feel deep feelings of whatever it is that they feel – happiness, validation, challenge or even being uncomfortable. I would like people to feel like talking about it in the car on the way home, or over breakfast the next day.”

Diamond has definitely created a work that not only sparks discussion but critical thinking. Perhaps this is the most profound gift any playwright can offer us – an opportunity to really step back and look at ourselves.

For more information:
Everyman Theatre
Box Office: 410-752-2208

Emelda De Coteau
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