By Sarah Downs
Flex, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is a play about friendship, ambition and hope, as played out in the fiercely competitive world of sport.
The lights come up on six young African American women playing a pick-up game of basketball in the dirt of a backyard court. They are the women of Lady Train, a high school team with real promise, if they can find that sweet spot, that dance, between assertion and accommodation that makes a team work. It is 1997 and the nascent WNBA has given female basketball players hope that, as with their male counterparts, high school glory can lead to a future in the pros.
The stakes are high. With their championship around the corner, these young women have to compete all out. At the same time, they face various off-court challenges, navigating the minefield of adolescence in a stifling, rural town with its dead-end prospects and legacy of generational teen pregnancy that has derailed more than one girl’s future.
Nevertheless, Coach Francine Pace (Christiana Clark) is optimistic. She has two fine prospects to showcase: the aptly named Starra (an electric Erica Matthews) and Sidney (a saucy Tamera Tomakili), the new girl in town. The two inevitably butt heads. The question is, how far will they go to win? In the exhausting role of Starra, Matthews is indeed a star. She maintains a level of emotional turmoil which, whilst sometimes at fever pitch, still doesn’t overshadow her charm and vulnerability. As each new iteration of turmoil reveals itself, Matthews finds a way to make it feel like new information. For her part, Tomakili beams personality all over the theater. Her Sidney has swagger, yet much lies beneath the surface.
Cherise, the earnest peacemaker (a delightfully funny Ciara Monique) tries to build a bridge between the two players. She has her own conflict, as she hovers between her Christian humility and the all-or-nothing spirit of competition. Meanwhile, April (a thoughtful Brittany Bellizeare), faces an uncertain future. And Donna (a subtly affecting Renita Lewis,) the quiet emotional anchor of the team, watches the action with a wisdom borne of perspective. The cast paint their characters effortlessly — Sidney’s freewheeling bravado, April’s quiet fortitude, Starra’s toughness, Cherise’s lack of guile, Donna’s refreshing simplicity – It’s all there. On top of that, they shoot hoops — a lot of hoops. It’s pretty amazing.
Christiana Clark as Coach Francine Pace, with her beautifully resonant speaking voice, combines the authority and warmth of a born leader, one who takes her job seriously, and can yet access her own youthful excitement about the game she loves. Dressed in the perfect 90’s pantsuit with simple turtleneck and gold earrings, Clark is head to toe the quintessential athletic coach. Her stance, hands in pockets, her manner, her very gesture complete the portrait.
Mika Eubanks’ costumes hit the 1990’s on the spot, as does the fabulous 90’s R&B soundtrack designed by Palmer Hefferan. The music had the audience dancing in their seats. (Don’t be surprised if some of them even sing along.) Matt Saunders’ set, under subtle lighting by Adam Honoré, evokes small town life, the high school gym, quiet nights outdoors, and even a cleverly designed automobile to drive those long, dusty roads.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz directs with steely — yet whisper soft — precision. She sets an easy rhythm, balancing the stillness of quiet stage tableaux with the controlled chaos of sport. The writing is a bit heavy handed at times, but Blain-Cruz keeps the energy flowing. I think playwright Candrice Jones could trust her own storytelling gift more, and labor less. Some more extended dramatic moments verge on wearying. Nevertheless, her script delivers an engrossing narrative, with characters we truly care about. In the hands of this excellent cast and directed with steadfast assurance, Flex is funny, insightful and very moving.
Presented by the Lincoln Center Theater, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 West 65 Street). Previews Friday June 23 – August 20, 2023 (opening night July 20th). For tickets, go to www.lct.org. Runtime two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.