Back in the late 1970s Ashford & Simpson wrote a classic, elegant instrumental disco song “Bourgie Bourgie”, to which they later added lyrics for Gladys Knight. The vocal version of the song is an anthem of African-American upper mobility, celebrating aspirations to leave “the street” to join the bourgeoisie or even higher echelons of society.
Playwright Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly immediately brought “Bourgie Bourgie” to mind for me; Diamond has a lot of intelligent points to make about the very complicated relationship between race and class in America. She has to stretch her plot to make these points – the points remain true and insightful, but the plot has a hard time recovering from the stretching. Set at the elegant Martha’s Vineyard summer home of the well-to-do LeVay family, Stick Fly begins when two adult sons independently choose to introduce their girlfriends to the parents on the same weekend (do you feel the stretch yet?).
Stick Fly‘s production team includes a talented successor to Ashford and Simpson in Alicia Keys, who both partially funded the play’s move to Broadway and wrote new incidental music for the Broadway production. Her music, which recalls Phillip Glass just as often as it recalls Valerie Simpson, is indeed quite lovely, but director Kenny Leon gives it a little too much weight, often stopping the action dead in its tracks.
The cast gives uniformly solid performances under Leon’s steady hand, with two major stand outs: Condola Rashad as the young domestic Cheryl and Tracie Thoms as Taylor, an intellectual oddball from a working class background. Stick Fly is at its best when these smart African-American people debate what it means for Cheryl to work for the LeVays and Taylor to “marry up” to them.
It’s at its worst when it threatens to become a sexual soap opera. Sure, this does allow Diamond to make equally sharp observations about how gender and sex intersect with race and class, but once again with costs to the coherence of the plot. Overall Stick Fly is an intelligent and mostly engaging comedy of manners, but as entertainment, I’m not sure that it’s worth those bourgie Broadway prices.
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