Oct. 28, 2011
University Theatre Mainstage presents Stick Fly Nov. 10-19
The University Theatre Mainstage will present Lydia R. Diamond's hard-hitting comedy Stick Fly,"the final Mainstage directoral effort by long-time Department of Theatre Arts faculty member Tisch Jones before her retirement, opening at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, in the E. C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Other performances will be at 8 p.m. Nov. 11, 12 and 17-19, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13.
The Nov. 13 performance will be followed by a "talk-back" session. The audience for that performance will be invited to remain, and the session will also be open to the public. The session will be moderated by UI playwriting and dramatic literature faculty member Sydne Mahone, who is also one of two dramaturgs for "Stick Fly." Members of the panel will include Jones, cast members and others from the UI production.
In Stick Fly the affluent African-American LeVay family gathers at their Martha's Vineyard vacation home as two sons independently plan to introduce their girlfriends to their upper class parents. Instead, sibling rivalries flare, opinions clash, class distinctions divide, and family secrets unravel.
Stick Fly, which will soon open on Broadway, produced by Alicia Keys, was described by the Boston Herald as "a complex, funny, moving play."
Keys said, "This is a story that everybody can relate to. I'm passionate about this play because it is so beautifully written and portrays Black America in a way that we don't often get to see in entertainment. I know it will touch audiences who will find a piece of themselves somewhere inside this house."
The play is the Broadway debut for Boston University faculty member Diamond, whose other work includes Voyeurs de Venus, The Bluest Eye, The Gift Horse, Stage Black, and Harriet Jacobs.
"It's sort of sad, but I will say, once upon a time, when I was 15-years old, when my mother was here in grad school, we used to live in married-student housing, which is where Hancher now stands," Jones says. "And to get there, we would leave the union, walk by the river, and I used to take a shortcut through the Art Building basement, and then through the E. C. Mabie basement to get warm on my way on that walk. And I'd go in and see E. C. Mabie stage and say, 'One day when I grow up, I'm going to act on that stage.'
"Isn't it interesting that not only did I get a chance to act on that stage, but I'm actually retiring from academia having directed on that stage? Most little girls dream about going to Broadway. I was dreaming about being on E. C. Mabie stage. And those seats are still the same color they were when I was 15. They have not changed colors. Hope they never do."
But why end that career with Stick Fly? The first time I read Stick Fly, what spoke to me was the fact that it was about a Black upper-middle-class family, which made me feel, 'Wow, somebody's finally writing something about me,' Jones says. "I do a lot of August Wilson plays; I do a lot of plays about slavery; but I don't do enough contemporary plays about people of color who are what we would call, upper-middle class, or the Black Bourgeoisie.
"Who's writing plays today about people like me? My mother had a PhD in piano performance and music lit. And my grandfather, who went to school at Tuskegee and sang at Booker T. Washington's funeral, had not only a B.A. from Tuskegee, but an honorary doctorate from another school. My grandmother went back to Dillard and finished her college degree with four children. My father's side of the family was Black Aristocracy. These are people who actually moved to Oklahoma City, claimed land, owned a lot of the land, and also built mansions.
"In fact, one of them had a 28-room mansion with an airfield behind it because they had their own airplane. These people had money, had property, and pretty much ran things in Oklahoma City, to the point that when Ralph Ellison, who wrote 'Invisible Man,' and his family came to Oklahoma City, they moved in with my family.
"The LeVay family is a type of Black Bourgeoisie family that is not particular about being connected to other Black families, particularly depending on the class. They want to be up there more with other people that are not of color, the non-Black people. The father talks about how maybe the people in town would prefer that he was in Oak Bluffs with the rest of the black folk. But they're not in Oak Bluffs. They're in Chappaquiddick, which is much more elite, in terms of white. I mean, that's the Kennedy land. That's where they live and they seem to be very proud of it."
Jones says the play has an important message for the current generation: "We've actually gotten to a point where you can have a class of people that don't seem to be careful of how they make choices based on our legacy. This generation -- I look at my own children -- they seem to have a sense of entitlement that you'll see the young men in this play seem to have, a sense of entitlement that I find we don't have time for. If anything, we can't lose a sense of who we are. We have to always remember where we came from.
"And unfortunately, we've got a generation of young, I say, Black kids in particular, coming through realizing that they weren't slaves and they don't remember that time, why should they care about it? Whereas they have to understand, if it wasn't on the back of slavery, they wouldn't be at this university; that nothing that is happening for them would have happened if it hadn't been for all these chapters.
Stroke of luck
Stick Fly is an important production for Jones, not just because of her family history, because of these issues, and because it is her final production at the UI, but because "this production is the most important in my life since I am doing it post-stroke, which to me is a major accomplishment."
Just last December Jones was a few miles short of New Orleans, where she was scheduled to begin teaching in a Semester at Sea program, when she experienced numbness in her face while refueling her Volkswagen. She thought that if it continued she would go to the hospital when she arrived in New Orleans, but when she attempted to re-enter the freeway she crashed head-on into a light pole. "The next thing I knew I was in the hospital with people yelling at me," she says. "I tried to talk to them, but they could not understand what I was saying."
She calls her survival a "stroke of luck," which was followed by months of rehabilitation at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, with follow-up at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Among her initial deficits were an inability to sing (scary for someone who has directed choirs and performed opera), a loss of memory of all the piano music she previously knew by heart, a speaking voice without expressive affect, and difficulty typing and organizing her thoughts as she attempted to keep her friends informed of her survival and progress through social media.
Although she continued to suffer cognitive difficulty with organizational thinking, practical job rehabilitation therapy directing two events in Minneapolis revealed that she had suffered no loss of creativity, reassuring her that she would be able to return to the UI for her final production.
"I could not ask for a better department," she says. "They gave me two extra weeks of rehearsal so that I would not be physically overtaxed. Everyone has been so supportive and accommodating, and the cast is also supportive. Sometimes a line just gets jumbled up in my head, and I can't figure out what it means. They are very understanding, that it's just a result of the stroke."
Although voice therapy has brought back her ability to speak expressively, her voice is still very fragile, so she uses a microphone in rehearsals, and her usual marathoner's stamina has been reduced. The department also provided a teaching assistant to the production in addition to the stage manager: "They work with me on my Outlook calendar, so that I can make appointments and keep on schedule. And sometimes they just tell me I'm too tired and I need to go and rest."
Through all the challenges, she finds the experience of directing Stick Fly encouraging. "I am not retiring from theater; just from academia," she says. "I've had to give up my dream of starting a theater company in New Orleans, but I'm less than a year out from the stroke, and this is how I intend to support myself for the rest of my life, so I feel very blessed."
Read about Jones and her UI career as a student and faculty member in this 2008 "Be remarkable" profile: http://www.uiowa.edu/be-remarkable/portfolio/people/jones-t.html.
Other artistic contributors to the UI production of Stick Fly are scenic designer Kevin Loeffler, costume designer Loyce Arthur, lighting designer Bryon Winn, and sound designer Lindsay Wolf.
Tickets for Stick Fly are $17, $12 for senior citizen, $10 for youth age 17 and younger, and $5 for UI student with a valid UI ID. UI Theatre Mainstage tickets are available through the Hancher Box Office at 319-335-1160, 1-800-HANCHER, or http://www.hancher.uiowa.edu/tickets.
This production contains material of an adult nature. Potential audience members who are concerned about whether it is appropriate for them should contact the department at 319-335-2700 for additional information.
The Department of Theatre Arts is an academic unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500