It is a basic, brutal fact of geopolitics: After the oppressed rise up, they may become oppressors in turn. We've seen this play out across the Middle East in recent decades, centuries after religious dissidents fled Europe for North America, sometimes establishing regimes as intolerant as those they'd escaped.
In families, a similar dynamic can manifest on a more intimate scale, funding cycles of abuse or oppression across generations, as we see with painful clarity in Raleigh Little Theatre's production of Stick Fly.
The family at the play's center has reached the acme of social achievement. Prominent black neurosurgeon Joe LeVay (Thomasi McDonald) is enjoying a vacation with his older son, Flip (TJ Swann), and his younger son, Kent (Marcus Zollicoffer), at their Martha's Vineyard summer home, where a Romare Bearden painting hangs in a living room abutted by a well-stocked library.
When the patriarch recites an old family story—how an encounter with the pigmentocracy, a historic form of discrimination within the black community, resulted in his meeting his future wife—it's clear that the LeVay men are well aware of some forms of intra-ethnic prejudice. But gradually we see the varying degrees to which they are resolutely blind to, or simply unwilling to change, their gender- and class-based biases, both subtle and overt.
Director Karen Dacons-Brock exposes those biases largely through the eyes of the two women the sons have brought to meet the family: Kent's fiancée, Taylor (Moriah Williams), and Flip's new companion, the ostensibly Italian—and white—Kimber (Amy White).
The first, faint cracks appear as Flip coolly assesses Taylor, telling Kent, "Hey, man, met your girl. You coulda done worse." Joe echoes these sentiments: "Nice. Well done," he says, in Taylor's presence, during their awkward introduction. Later, when Flip asks if his mom, who hasn't arrived yet, is all right, Joe replies, "Yeah. You know women."
In an increasingly hellish after-dinner conversation, Taylor finds her struggles as a middle-class black college student scrutinized and criticized by people who clearly feel that their social privilege gives them license to opine. The exchange pushes her relationship with Kent to a crisis point, when he must embrace the family power dynamic or pull away from it.
Meanwhile, Kimber faces different—and unexpected—challenges in finding her place in this strange family.
The LeVays' relationship with Cheryl (Tosin Olufolabi), the daughter of their long-term housekeeper, discloses further social stratifications. Olufolabi's enviable emotional range conveys Cheryl's familial ease until revelations take her to an explosive second-act confrontation. Williams needed but lacked similar range in her work as Taylor. Swann convinces as the louche Flip, and Zollicoffer conveys Kent's sensitivity about confronting his own family. Stage veteran McDonald nails the stern Joe.
As playwright Lydia R. Diamond pulls back the veil from black sexism and classism, she exposes a family edifice as flimsy as a house of cards. Stick Fly isn't always easy to watch, but it provocatively depicts the barriers black women still must overcome within their families and culture in order to taste freedom in their own right.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The class ceiling"