Sunday, December 18, 2011

Challenging Patriarchy: A Full Review of Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly

Stick Fly is a play about an African American family’s upper class stability. Its biggest drama is concerned with how that stability is shattered by a member of that family who comes to reject the norms on which that stability is based. It is set on the Martha’s Vineyard cottage of the Levay family in 2005. The Broadway version omits the original prologue which has us meeting Kent Levay, the artistically-inclined-aspiring-novelist-son of the family (played by DulĂ© Hill). In this prologue he comes to a funeral of the famed intellectual James Bradley Scott and meets his daughter Taylor Bradley Scott (played brilliantly by Tracie Thoms). He shares how impressed he is with her father’s work but she is unimpressed. What seems to attract Taylor to Kent is his willingness to listen to her, which we see throughout the play is a need for Taylor. They hit it off and in the next scene where the Broadway version begins, Kent hits it off with Taylor and brings her home. Taylor is in awe of the Levay household. Kent is hoping that his mom, Michelle, will like Taylor and Taylor is hoping likewise. A lot of her energy throughout this play is spent trying desperately to impress the Levay family and “fit in” so to speak. She admires a Romare Bearden painting in the living room. Taylor is a character, like many of us, who is impressed and arguably altered by material items. She comes across a family picture of Kent’s Great-Great-grandfather Whitcomb, “the Great Sea Captain.” Kent tells Taylor he was a shipper, and when Taylor asks “of what,” he says:
“we don’t talk about that. Anyway he saved the mayor’s son from a boating accident. As a reward, the mayor gave him this land on which he built this house, making the Whitcombs the first Blacks to own land anywhere on the Vineyard.”
To this Taylor replies in admiration: “its beautiful.” As Kent and Taylor get to know each other more on the living room couch, we see a young woman enter the kitchen from stage right with groceries to put away and laundry to fold. Kent enters the kitchen and hugs her, whom we come to know as Cheryl (played beautifully by Condola Rashad), daughter of the Levay’s maid, Ellie, who is working in her mother’s place for some reason this weekend. Kent’s older brother Flip (played by Mekhi Phifer) enters the living room and recognizes Taylor, and we see right away that they both recognize and are shocked to see each other for some reason. Taylor seems confused about who Cheryl is, and when Cheryl introduces herself and says “I’m working for the Levays,” Taylor replies: “Oh…you’re the maid” and produces, according to stage directions, a moment of “awkward silence.” This sets up a confrontational relationship between Taylor and Cheryl. Cheryl quickly despises the way that Taylor types her. Taylor is trying to understand the upper class African American family that she is trying to impress and wants to know everybody in this family. By typing Cheryl as “the maid,” Taylor immediately distances Cheryl from the Levay family; Taylor acknowledges the patriarchal structure that she wants to fit into. Cheryl resents this categorization because she wants to be seen more as a human being rather than an occupation. Taylor in this line seems to project her insecurities onto Cheryl, and Cheryl’s words and actions immediately resist this. Cheryl is a character who assumes her humanity and demands that others, like Taylor, see it. She is almost a manifestation of the invisible answer to Taylor’s question to Kent of “what” great great grandfather Whitcomb shipped. We can probably infer that Whitcomb shipped slaves and that his family’s wealth that Kent inherited came as a result of profiting from the slave trade. Lydia Diamond as a playwright seems to be subtly commenting on how upper class stability and prosperity of even affluent upper class Blacks is built on the shipping of enslaved human beings. Human beings that were essentially made invisible for the sake of commerce, and for the sake of the Whitcombs’ wealth and prosperity. Flip is a plastic surgeon and when Cheryl first sees him and asks him about his patients, the stage directions tell us Flip “pushes a couple of buttons on his new, sexy, status phone and starts to put the phone in his pocket.” Kent indulges in the phone and calls it “sweet” and “sexy.” Instead of answering Cheryl’s question about his patients, Flip addresses Kent’s admiration for his phone and shows that he is more interested in profiting from his occupation than in conversing about the humanity of those he works with. Both great great grandfather Whitcomb and Flip Levay men are not so much interested in challenging the colonial economic structure as they are in working within it. Cheryl again presses the humanity issue, this time not of Flip’s patients, but of Flip himself when she is serving the Levay sons drinks and snacks in the living room while they (Taylor, Kent and Flip) play the board game of Trivial Pursuit. Flip talks about how he was followed by a little blonde salesgirl in the Pottery Barn, and Cheryl (whom the stage directions tells us has an “intense and painful crush” on Flip) says to him: “you shouldn’t be harassed because you’re human.” Flip responds to her: “not just a person a well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled person” and seems to miss her point that regardless of how we looks, he should be treated as a human being. Cheryl logically retorts: “so they should follow around a guy who works for, say, the phone company, just not you?” Taylor interrupts so Flip does not directly answer, mainly because she wants Flip to play the game; she later says: “I like the game. You would too if you were invested in winning.” This line is a double entendre as it its referring not only to the literal game of Trivial Pursuit but also the figurative game of social “success” in Western society. The object of “the game” is to develop as much class status and wealth within the materialistic Western society as possible. And more than any other woman in the play, Taylor is most invested in winning a place of approval and acceptance in the Levay family. Kent, however, as the artistic thinker, responds to Taylor in a way that comments on the game and the larger Western society: “it’s trivia…Trivial Pursuit. The pursuit of things trivial.” While he did indulge in Flip’s cell phone and he does play a board game, Kent also understands in a deeper way, how trivial on some level all ambitions for “success” are, which explains his interest as a novelist. When Flip complains that he gets a harder Trivial Pursuit question than Kent, about which South Vietnamese president was assassinated by his generals in 1963, Dad (played awesomely by Ruben Santiago Hudson) enters the living room with the correct answer of Ngo Dinh Diem. He tries to get his point across about Diem however both Kent and Taylor cut him off as if to deny or once again silence the experience of those oppressed cultures in order to try and play “the game.” His point may have been that Diem was a U.S. puppet intended to suppress the revolution in Vietnam against the French. However Dad soon drops his train of thought on Diem when he sees Taylor and charms her. He lets her know of his familiarity with her father’s books, namely, The Bonds of Intellectual Freedom. Taylor tells Dad “the house is beautiful” and Dad turns his attention to Kent saying: “so you’re going to support your beautiful wife writing books now, I hear.” His exchanges to Kent include: “So son, you’re a very talented fiction writer for whom I paid to get a law degree, a business degree, and a master’s in sociology.” When Taylor tries to build Kent up before his dad by telling him that Kent just got a publisher, Dad asks “Random House? Dell?” Kent replies “small” and to that Dad replies “oh. Small…” Taylor sees how Dad insists on exposing the frailty of Kent and changes the conversation to her own pursuits, saying to Dad: “I’m doing a postdoc at Johns Hopkins. Entomology.” Hudson plays the disdain, towards Kent and his career choices, beautifully. He definitely portrays a father who makes a point to let anybody within listening distance know that he is disappointed in his son’s choices and believes he should change them. After the exchange which Taylor calls “intense,” she says to Kent: “you’re shrinking.” Dad later tells Flip in the kitchen, Kent’s older brother about Kent: “the boy’s a fuckup. Hey…I don’t set unreasonably high standards. But I’ve given you boys everything. There’s no need for floundering.” When Kent enters the kitchen and talks only to Dad, Dad tells him:
“its time to step up. You’re about to have a wife, God help you. Maybe start a family? You can’t be out there like you’ve been and trying to find yourself and what not. It’s not about you anymore. [Pulling out his Blackberry] I’ll help you. [scrolling through his address book] Figure out what you want to do with your life and get back to me…I’ll make some calls. But I’m not entertaining this mess about now I’m a writer…Damn boy…man up. Get a job.”
Dad wants Kent to get a lucrative job and make money the exact same way that he did; the way that Kent’s brother Flip has done as a plastic surgeon. Even though Dad appreciates the work of Taylor’s father James Bradley Scott, he cannot envision his own son being able to make a living as a novelist, and dismisses his efforts outright. He expects his son not to find his own way but to find a job for him by making “some calls.” In the third scene of this play is a very interesting exchange between Cheryl and Dad in the kitchen. Before Dad enters the kitchen, Cheryl is on the phone with her mother Ellie, whom we never see. Ellie asks her to ask Dad “if there’s anything he wants to say.” Cheryl says “ok.” When Dad enters and Cheryl tells him that Ellie was talking to her, he also in an indirect way lets Cheryl know that if she wanted to talk about anything she perhaps could. However this scene dramatically changes when Taylor enters. After she enters, when Cheryl says “I don’t know if there’s something you want to say to me” Dad replies “no” firmly, then says emphatically: “I said no. Don’t you have something to do?” Dad is reaffirming the patriarchal structure here, especially now that Taylor has entered the scene. He wants to keep up the appearance that there is absolutely no impropriety in him as patriarch of the Levay family. He does not want to bring any doubt about this role by mentioning whatever he thinks Cheryl wanted to know. Like his son Kent, Dad also has his own weaknesses and frailties, in this case his frailty is fear of being found out about whatever secret he is hiding from Cheryl. In the fourth scene, Cheryl has an interesting exchange with Taylor about her father’s work. Cheryl is able to engage Taylor about her father’s books more specifically than any other character in the play. She says to Taylor: “I liked what he was saying about the economic ramifications of the slave trade. [beat] And how he makes it so specific. [beat] And traces the debt from shippers to traders to banks.” Not only is Cheryl tracing the story written by Taylor’s father; Cheryl is also tracing the history of Kent’s great great grandfather whose wealth, that he bequeathed to three generations, depended on accumulating debt and passing those debts to banks. A debt that is presumably created by turning human beings into objects to be sold and traded as commodities for material profit. Taylor is not interested in engaging Cheryl however about her father’s book primarily because, as she disclosed in the prologue excised from the Broadway version of the play, she is still coping with abandonment from her father. To Taylor, James Bradley Scott could thoroughly articulate the immoral nature of the white supremacist capitalist economy, but could not thoroughly raise his own child forced to live in such an economy. Lydia Diamond is commenting on the role of public Black intellectuals in general via her fictional James Bradley Scott by asking: how could intellectuals care about correcting social structures when they can’t even care enough for their own children? This recalls Norman Kelley’s critique of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson being “market intellectuals” in his book The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome. He argues in this book that “market intellectuals” profit handsomely by identifying the ills of the white supremacist parasitic capitalist economy, rather than working in a meaningful way to revolutionize such a system. Taylor is a character in Stick Fly who could probably identify her own father as a “market intellectual.” No other character forces Taylor to confront her demons of feeling abandoned better than Kimber, Flip’s white girlfriend.
The fifth scene takes place in the living room, where Dad, Taylor, Kent, Flip, and Kimber are lounging and Cheryl is serving them. Kimber discovers that Flip has been describing her to his family as “Italian” and she makes it clear that she is not Italian, but “straight up WASP.” WASP is white Anglo Saxon Protestant. Kimber is a character that is clear throughout the play about her white privilege. She has no pretensions whatsoever about it. It is also clear that one of her underlying ambitions is to make her material world of white privilege, to those like Flip and Taylor who are not WASPs, more accommodating for them. She catches the interest of Kent when she tells him how impressed she was with his novel: “your imagery is amazing; really out of this world, and the ease with which you segue from one setting to the next. And the landscape, like a metaphor for the fragile state of Michael’s psyche.” Dad meanwhile is trying to get Taylor to finish a story about her junior year in college. In Taylor’s story she is the only Black student in a women’s studies class talking about what makes a perfect society. She asks the class: “is your utopia free of color distinctions?” She says the whole class environment became very racist when “one of the Beckys” said “if it was a utopian society, there would only be one dominant race.” Her professor called her to apologize for the turn the class took and Taylor said that the problem with the class started when no women of color were discussed in a class titled “Feminist Voices of the Twentieth Century.” Kimber responds to Taylor’s story of racism by saying she could be relentless. Taylor says “you can be relentless and keep chipping away at the bullshit, or you can be passive and confused and lose your mind.” Flip interjects that Taylor “lost it,” and asks Kimber and the rest to stop indulging her. He attempts to shift the conversation’s focus away from the racism Taylor’s critiquing by adding: “we’ve all went to good schools.” Taylor insists to Flip that her experience was different from his because him and Kent came from a richer class. Kimber disagrees with Taylor saying how it couldn’t have been much different since Taylor is the daughter of a public intellectual. But Taylor says he was his daughter “just by birth. He had a new family.” An argument ensues between Taylor and Kimber who suggests that Taylor’s plight cannot compare to the inner city kids who suffer from inadequate public education: “there you were at this privileged institution, with your famous dad and your new laptop to soothe yourself, and you’re upset because some stupid sorority chicks are mean to you?” Taylor replies:
“No, Kimber. I was upset because people like you can’t see it. Your inner city kids aren’t supposed to succeed…as long as they can stay ignorant and dependent on you, they won’t have to mess up the white spaces. They let one or two us in who’ve had enough privilege to almost play the game. Just enough to make us feel special. It’s a grand mindfuck. Then Kimmy here goes slummin’ for five minutes and knows all about it.
[To Kimber] You can kiss my black ass is what you can do with you I’m-such-a-Goddman-saint-inner-function-sanctum-of-rebellion-white-liberal bullshit. Don’t you ever come to me like that. You need to get your white ass out of my world, or keep your hippie drivel to your damn self…[mumbling to herself; italicized lines were not in original] Fuckin’ I’ll show Dad what happens when he doesn’t notice me…I’m too deep for cotillions, I’ll fuck black and I’ll show them all, bitch.”
The issue for Taylor is much deeper than the white liberal racism she mentions in this exchange with Kimber. Her base emotions that drive this whole tirade is seen in the lines she says while mumbling to herself. For Taylor, the root issue is being neglected by her father. This neglect is arguably responsible for her becoming attracted to Kent, then seeking approval from the Levay family and now to competing with Kimber for favor in the Levay family. Following this tirade, Taylor excuses herself and goes into the kitchen with Kent who is totally annoyed by her tirade. When he asks “what’s gotten into you,” she replies that Kent did not support her enough. Taylor wants support. She later says her late dad got a place over in Oak Bluffs and she is deathly scared of running into her dad’s family. She shares a story of how her mom asked her dad if Taylor could spend part of the summer with him and he said “it would be too complicated. We’re going to the Vineyard.” Tracie Thoms delivery of this line is especially powerful because at this time she is crying with strong emotion and the stage directions tell us that “Kent pulls Taylor into an embrace.” After his embrace, Kent says he needs a little time by himself and leaves the cottage. Taylor enters the kitchen where Flip is “eating a large piece of chocolate cake with gusto.” We find out in their exchange that Flip and Taylor used to date and that Taylor seemed to want better closure especially when she says: “you never called.” To this eventually Flip replies: “Why do you women do that? Like some damn The Way We Were Sunday flick. You, you’re a beautiful, smart woman, and you’ll lay down with just anyone who’s a little bit nice to you for gumbo and a cheap glass of wine?” Flip knows her weakness of feeling abandoned and consequently being sexually easy as a result of it. He later says referring to Taylor in third person:
“she’s so happy just to be there with me. And I ask her back to my place, really just to talk. ‘Cause I’m thinkin’ she’s…special. But I find that she’s no different. Just so willing to lay down and give herself over, to someone as undeserving as I. I didn’t have to work for it. So yes, I fuck her brains out…and forget all about her. Until this bitter, bitter girl comes home with my brother.”
Taylor says that Flip will never be happy with Kimber and Flip tells her that if she thinks of him when Kent touches her, she’ll have “the most intense orgasm” of her life. Taylor asserts that when she does have that orgasm it’ll be Kent’s name on her lips, “because he knows me. Better than I know myself.” And for the kicker back to Flip she says: “maybe if you weren’t so afraid you’d find that kind of love one day.” While Flip forces Taylor to think about how her abandonment issues cause her to shortchange herself, Taylor also forces Flip to challenge his artificial division between having sex and having a meaningful long term relationship.
The second act of this play begins with Cheryl on the phone with Ellie, asking her why couldn’t another maid work instead of her, especially in light of the revelation here that Dad Levay is not only Kent and Flip’s father. He’s also Cheryl’s. She discovers this on the phone in the presence of Kimber and says to her: “Please don’t say nothing to nobody…” Kimber tries to console Cheryl by telling her that her grandmother’s brother became an outcast by marrying an Irish immigrant: “In my world that’s beyond unacceptable.” Kimber is trying to relate to Cheryl by describing the suffering that her grand uncle faced for marrying a non-WASP Irishman, but as Cheryl tells her, “it doesn’t hold a candle.” Flip calls Kimber into the living room to massage his scalp with hair oil, and Taylor converses with Dad about what’s on her mind. Taylor tells him very directly: “I just find it exhausting never having a space that’s all mine.” Her father never welcomed a space for her the way Dad has for Kent and Flip; plus, in the Levay’s cottage, she is hoping not to run into her father’s other kin that is also not very welcoming. She also shares her love for entomology with Dad, that on some level explains her deep desire for meaningful attention. Taylor’s fascination with studying flies comes from a deep desire to be known and to be studied:
“you can’t just follow a fly around with a video cam, its too fast. Film, even digital, can’t pick up the nuances of a fly in motion. So, we glue a fly to a stick…And we hold the stick in front of a projection screen with three sides, like those Omnimax films, right? And we film his wing adjustments as we project objects coming at him.”
The title of this play comes from Taylor’s need to observe and theorize about a fly’s motion. “Stick Fly” is what Taylor is saying to her specimen in order to observe it. This fascination to observe this fly seems to come from her own personal need for loving attention, which comes from her father abandoning her. Like the fly, Taylor is continually moving to find that place, especially when she tells Dad she’s “exhausted” finding a place. Taylor seeks a place where she is not only noticed but welcomed. The Levay household is one place that just may stick her. This is what makes the truth of the Stick Fly Broadway logo so relevant: it shows a house on the end of a pin holding a yellow strip with a fly. The house in the logo is what pins the strip with the fly down. The house in the play attracts Taylor to essentially stop “flying” and land. Dad does not make the connection to Taylor’s interest in entomology but concludes she’s “freakishly smart.” At the same time Dad talks with Taylor, Flip is talking with Kimber. Diamond shows an interesting similarity between Taylor and Kimber by having both characters in different locations say the same lines at the same time: “I’m not jealous!” Kimber discloses to Flip that she can tell that him and Taylor slept together. Kimber says that she thinks that his brother Kent deserves better. When Kimber also notices that Cheryl’s got “the biggest crush” on Flip, Flip says his most condescending line in the play: “surely you’re not jealous of jailbait?” Flip is a character whose swagger allows him to have sex with women, even when he knows he’s “undeserving.” Kimber tells Flip: “the house, the family, you in this context, it got me.” Kimber is interested in fulfilling the white American dream and its rewards of the white picket fence and two kids. She critiqued Taylor about being “relentless” and like most beneficiaries of this society, she is not interested in the having her acquisition of material gain challenged, even though it came at the cost of oppressing people of color. While she does not talk about it at all, she is a proud carrier of white privilege. Taylor acknowledges Kimber’s white privilege when Dad tells her that the difference between her and Kimber is that Kimber doesn’t care whereas Taylor tries too hard to be liked. Taylor replies: “She’s never had to [want to be liked]. The world stops for women like that.” When Taylor asks if the idea of his family getting “diluted” by Kimber piss him off, he replies: “Don’t you know you know most Black folks got it ‘cause somewhere along the way somebody was raped in the kitchen.” When Dad brings up her dad, she replies: “he tells the white people, ‘you ain’t shit.’ They give him an award. ‘You still ain’t shit.’ Another award. Meanwhile what changes?” Taylor is not only questioning the role of her father; she is also questioning the role of the Black intellectual in American society today as well. Diamond is asking: what are Black public intellectuals doing to change society besides publicly critiquing it? In the second scene of the second act, which is later that morning, Kent surprises Taylor with the galley copies of his new novel in the living room. She notices that his novel’s dedication calls her “the love of my life.” Kimber enters and invites Taylor to go shopping with her: “we’ll be OK if we just talk about clothes and shoes.” Kimber is hoping Taylor will focus on the trinkets of patriarchal society of clothes and shoes, rather than combating the institutionalized racism that exists. Dad told Taylor: “I understand that you can be angry and not crazy. Just be a little more…constructive.” While Kimber is also hoping to smooth out the relationship with Taylor, she is also hoping that this trip can take the edge off of Taylor’s high perception of racism, especially after telling her that she can be “relentless.”
When Taylor and Kimber leave to go shopping, Dad and Flip for the first time identify the key norms of their upper class stability. Apart from Taylor, Dad tells Kent: “you’ve got a handful with that Taylor.” Flip follows with “seems high-maintenance women is a family tradition. That’s why I’m not even trying to…” Kent interrupts at this point, asking “Mom’s not high maintenance. Is she?” Dad answers “No, no. Not if you keep your mouth shut, stay low, and keep the cash coming.” Dad, as patriarch of the Levay family, shows that one key norm to maintaining peace and upper class stability is to “keep [his] mouth shut, stay low, and keep the cash coming.” This norm may work in some respects but not others. Flip thinks the best way to deal with this norm is to date white women, like Kimber, who tells him “we don’t have the kind of thing that makes it OK for me to be jealous.” This “agreement” is a green light for Flip to flirt with any woman he wants, as he demonstrated with Taylor at the end of Act One. Kent appropriately challenges this norm of “keeping [his] mouth shut” when he says “that doesn’t seem fair.” In the next scene, Taylor, Flip, Kent, and Kimber are playing Scrabble. After seeing Flip spell m-o-j-i-t-o, Taylor asks Cheryl to make a mojito. She then spells p-i-t-u-i-t-a-r-y. Kimber claims that her competition is drunk and withdraws from the game. Both Flip and Kent said they’ve tried to call their mother but apparently they haven’t heard from her. Kimber asks Taylor how she got interested in bugs, and Taylor said she was heartbroken about not being invited to a party, and her mother tells her, according to Taylor: “’look, baby, you just have to look at everyone like they’re bugs under a microscope. Like ants. Figure out the patterns.” Flip says “that sounds like a hippie, new-age, psycho Band-Aid.” However this is exactly what Taylor does in her life: she figures out the patterns by getting the fly to stick and by observing it when moving various objects in front of it. She says that advice from her mother worked and she doesn’t think her mother could have done any better because of how difficult it is to raise a little black girl around white privilege. Kimber makes the point that what Taylor went through is not the kind of racism that the kids she’s studied have gone through: “theirs is more institutional, a lack of resources, a general lack of investment from anyone who could make a difference.” Taylor then gives an anecdote about how her mother pulled her from a school because the teachers graded her satisfactory in reading and did not see a need for improvement: “And Mommy says, ‘satisfactory is not Taylor’s potential.’ And that was my last day at that school.” About Taylor’s anecdote Kimber says: “I get that your tale is supposed to be about the struggles to overcome adversity, or something. It’s a bad example. The parent is supposed to be a working part of the school system, to facilitate change.” Kimber in this line belittles the same kind of institutional racism she says that Taylor did not face much of compared to other Black kids, when she calls Taylor’s example of a racist public school system “adversity, or something.” Kimber does not consider the role that institutionalized racism plays in preventing parents from being “a working part of the school system.” This was seen most clearly in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville debacle of 1968 where the white dominated City of New York teamed up with the white dominated United Federation of Teachers to essentially forbid Black and Latino parents from exercising community control over their public schools. And recent mayors including Bloomberg have essentially continued that lack of control. Kimber tries to convince Taylor that she is the exception and because she is the exception, she should stop being so “relentless.” Kimber censors Taylor’s perceptions of racism in ways that mirror her own perceived academic censoring. However unlike the first heated exchange with Kimber, Taylor goes to the other extreme of letting Kimber essentially belittle her experience of racism. This is made complete when Kimber compares Taylor’s experience of racism to the fabricated story of her sister’s experience of being dumbed down because her perceived attractiveness. Kimber changes the thrust of Taylor’s anecdote to talk about her sister in order to leave the specter of institutionalized racism entirely. Kimber’s sympathy of “I feel your pain” comes in the form of her sister being treated a certain way because of perceived beauty. However the two can’t compare; as Cheryl pointed out with Kimber’s earlier example meant to sympathize with Cheryl: “it doesn’t hold a candle.” Not for Cheryl, but for Taylor. Taylor participates in Kimber’s belittling of her own experience when she helps Kimber tell her sister’s story and falsely compares herself to Becky: “Because satisfactory is all Becky needs.” This speaks to Taylor’s desperate need to be loved and accepted. By rectifying her earlier tirade in order to be accepted by the Levay family, she agrees with Kimber. She also agrees with Kimber after Dad told her to be “constructive” in order to fit into the kind of patriarchy which bows to white privilege. She also agrees with Kimber after Kimber was able on some level to seduce Taylor by taking her shopping for material items and divert her attention away from “chipping away at the bullshit.” Instead, Taylor in this second confrontation with Kimber chooses, by Taylor’s own admission to “be passive and confused and lose [her] mind.” Kimber is able to make her point of belittling institutionalized racism after and not before inviting Taylor to go shopping. White characters like Kimber depend on the moral and mental fragmentation experienced by Blacks like Taylor in order to thrive. And Tracie Thoms plays this kind of semi schizophrenia in Taylor, beautifully.
Taylor later pours Kimber tea in the kitchen. Cheryl takes a phone call from her mother and is obviously disturbed by it. Kent and Flip enter the kitchen. Cheryl yells on the phone: “stop…stop! I can’t do this!” When Flip asks for Sleepytime Tea, Cheryl blasts: “You know what. I’m done. You can kiss my ass is what you can do with your tea.” Cheryl is obviously very excited and Kent tries to comfort her, but she pushes him way. The stage directions tell us she is “hyperventilating.” Cheryl says that Ellie told her to ask him something and she did but he didn’t reply. Then she said that Mrs. Levay is calling and wants to talk to Dr. Levay but he won’t. She asks Flip and Kent: “and you two didn’t know?” To Cheryl who is now enraged, they didn’t know “because you don’t think ‘bout nothin’ but yourselves and your damn socioeconomic bantering, and bugs, and relationship dysfunction and shit…the most self-involved, bullshit people.” Cheryl is angry that Flip and Kent did not know that Dad is her father. The calls were ones of urgency from her mother asking that she finally knows who her biological father is. As Cheryl tells the story of how her mother tells her who her real father is, the rest of the entire cast is aghast:
So, this is the thing that’s the craziest. It wasn’t that Mrs. Levay was broken up about a kid who shares her own kids’ gene pool washing her crusty sheets. No, the tragedy was that it got out. She calls my mother, threatens to fire her…calls her out of her name, after Ma’s been quiet about it all these years…and threatens to take us to court for libel. I’m supposed to have a daddy got shot in the Gulf…And you knew…how can you live with yourself?
Flip and Dad ask whether what Cheryl has said is true and he does not deny it. This revelation by Cheryl prompts several meaningful lines from characters that challenge the norm of the Levays’ upper class stability and patriarchy. The first comes from Flip who asks Dad: “but tell me how you did not stop to think about us? While we were sleeping upstairs, you came down here and had your way with the maid? How did you not think about us? Shit.” In the final scene of this play, we see Kent, Cheryl, Kimber, Kent, and Taylor all at the table. Kent compares the previous scene to the Jerry Springer and leaves the kitchen. Flip follows him. He makes another meaningful inference about Cheryl’s revelation:
I just keep thinking of all the stories. How Daddy couldn’t stay in the dorms, or walk in the yard after sundown. How Daddy wasn’t allowed to make his valedictorian speech, or do his residency at Boston. How he got his ass kicked when those guys thought Mom was white. Wouldn’t that make you crazy? Wouldn’t that make you want to stake a claim on anything you could lay your hands on? Shit, even now he can’t play golf where his colleagues do.
Kent seems able to make this inference being the empathetic novelist he is. He reveals that he sees his father as a layered man, who in coping with white racism was trying to “stake a claim” somewhere by sleeping with his maid. Kent sees his father’s conception of an illegitimate child as him reclaiming his “manhood” that was denied to him because of his race. Because he was denied this opportunity, in Kent’s eyes, Dad could finally seize the opportunity to prove his manhood by fathering a child out of wedlock. After realizing the pain of trying to fit into this ideal of manhood has caused Kent comes into himself and more strongly affirms who he is as a man. His father regularly attacked his manhood, and not Flip’s, by dismissing his ambition to be a novelist. However Cheryl’s revelation has allowed Kent to find himself outside the confines of the patriarchy that Dad and Flip closely followed:
All this time, all these years, I’ve been running up under you two. Hating myself because I have no desire to kill deer, or climb mountains, or rate pussy. Dad taught us both that there was something wrong with me for that. And I believed it. I’m fifteen and all I want, just like every other fifteen year old boy, is to have a cute girl like me, maybe get to second base…but I’m thinkin’ I can’t because I’ve got some sort of testosterone deficiency. My daddy made me think that. Why? Because I give a shit about people? Because I don’t put myself first? Because I hear what women say, and actually like them for it? I admire the hell out of you, Flip. I do. You the man. I just wanted you to think the same about me…Dad doesn’t like me because he doesn’t like himself. But it doesn’t matter. That’s his cross. I’m done.
Kent realizes that the ideal his father presented was not real and was an ideal constructed by Dad to cover his paternity to Cheryl, “stay low” and maintain patriarchy. Kent and Flip end up arguing in the living room over exactly Mom’s role in this revelation. Flip believes that Mom played some role in Dad’s infidelity but Kent doesn’t. Kent says about their mother: “She went slumming, got what she was shopping for, and spent the rest of their lives punishing Dad for it.” Kent resents Flip’s simplistic take: “It was cruel. It was wrong. And if he’s really got you convinced that’s the rules, you’re gonna be fucked…or I guess you’ll marry some poor passive white girl with self-esteem issues and torture her.” Kent later punches Flip when he discovers that Flip, like Dad, slept with Ellie. In the kitchen, Cheryl asks Kimber why she loves Flip and she replies: “I want to have the babies of the man I love. They’ll come out whatever color they come out, and I will love them because they will be my babies. You can’t know this. But you will. You will fall in love one day, and you will know this.” At the end of this scene is a final reconciling between Cheryl, Kimber and Taylor.
In the fifth and final scene of the play, Cheryl confronts Dad:
I was really cute. And you couldn’t see me, and love, me, and want me? How come you couldn’t see yourself in my eyes? How come you couldn’t feel like you was put here to protect me?...But I just didn’t matter? And you still don’t see me. Me. Me. Your daughter. The first man who loves you is supposed to be your father. You were supposed to love me first. And best. And how can anyone ever love me right if you couldn’t love me first? And I’m thinkin’ I’m mad at the white girl, ‘cause she took my men…but she didn’t…they just don’t see me. And I’m thinkin’ I don’t like Taylor ‘cause she trying so hard to be seen. But I don’t like her ‘cause she like me. She got the same…holes in her. But all this time, it was you. I deserve to be seen.
Cheryl speaks for the thousands of Blacks who worked as menial slaves, including those who were shipped without thought of their humanity, when she demands to be seen by her biological father. She blames this for hers and Taylor’s low self esteem more than she blames institutional racism. She is expressing her innermost emotions when in anger she calls Kent and Flip superficial, by not seeing how their patriarchal, leisure-based upper class privileges requires rendering those below to not be seen. She is hoping by her revelation and her telling her father that she deserves to be seen that she will upset the norms on which the Levay patriarchy is based, namely the norms that says that those servant classes under them are rendered invisible. Cheryl understands that part of why Dad’s paternity was ignored was because her mother is the maid. Cheryl is hoping that the love for his daughter will prevail over any class distinctions and he will defy “staying low” and defy the patriarchy in order to see her. But we see that he doesn’t. When Dad tells her he doesn’t know what she wants, Cheryl replies: “then I feel sorry for you.” She feels sorry that Dad has essentially bought into American patriarchy. Taylor tells Dad “She wanted you to say, ‘I’m sorry…I love you…I’m here for you.” She then asks Dad Levay the question she always wanted to ask her own father: “how is it someone who’s supposed to be a genius, who’s supposed to have such a capacity for understanding the workings of the human mind, could treat family like this? What kind of sickness lets you just cut the inconvenient pieces out. I just want to know.” Dad eventually replies: “It has something to do with manhood and self-preservation, and struggling to prove yourself all the time.” Dad and Flip plan to leave, but Taylor insists to both men; “you all need to stay!” Then she says: “Please don’t leave me.” Kent restrains her, saying “It’s not your fight!” The stage directions tell us that Kent pulls Taylor into his embrace and soothes her. Dad and Flip argue over Dad’s jabbing comment Kent and Dad ends up explaining his actions:

“There isn’t a single one of you that hasn’t kept secrets or made mistakes. So you kids think carefully if you want to start throwing stones up in this house. Pretty much from the second they bring you ingrates home from the hospital, every waking moment is spent trying to keep your asses safe and provided for. [to Flip] are your teeth straight? I did that. [To Kent] Did you get any degree from any school that you wanted? I followed the rules. I worked hard. I supported the household. I gave you everything. You are equipped. [To Cheryl] Even you. That was my time, my money, my choices. I tell you what, you go out there and find me a mind who hasn’t made mistakes, then you judge.”
The stage directions tell us that Dad later “looks at Cheryl, starts toward her and then backs away. He shoulders his duffle bag. And, without looking back, walks out of the door.” He justifies his rendering Cheryl and all others who are below his class as invisible. He justifies not recognizing Cheryl as a daughter the way she wanted. Kent tells Taylor even after learning about her tryst with Flip that “life is going to be a lot easier, for both of us, if you’ll just accept that I’m not leaving. Ever.” The play ends with Taylor asking a question that more or less defines her character: “do you think they liked me?” She, unlike Cheryl, is hoping to fit into the patriarchal system that renders menial workers like Ellie and Cheryl as invisible. It is a system that allowed Dad to see Ellie as a sexual object to be conquered in order to redeem one’s so called manhood. It is also a system that allowed Dad to see Cheryl as nothing more than a mouth to feed in order to keep the secret of his paternity to Cheryl hidden. In Stick Fly Lydia Diamond is making profound statements about ultimately the need to challenge patriarchy through Cheryl’s dramatic revelation. She identifies issues of low esteem in Cheryl and Taylor coming not so much from institutionalized racism, but more from abandonment by fathers who do not critique the patriarchal society in which they live. A patriarchal society that was based on the “shipping” of human beings whose humanity had to be denied in order for the colonial economic colonial system to thrive.
Lydia Diamond’s commentary on the patriarchal system bears important similarities to the patriarchal system presented in Lorraine Hansberry’s screenplay The Drinking Gourd. The play, according to Hansberry’s former husband Robert Nemiroff, was trying to understand the thinking of the white male master, or white male plantation owner. She explored what it meant to have a mentality that sought to maintain the ignorance of the enslaved. The play’s main characters include the master, Hiram and his son Everett who is trying to convince his father that the only way to keep his plantation running is to increase the number of hours per day his slaves work. The play takes place at the eve of the Civil War and Hiram disagrees with his son. Hiram is convinced that to increase the number of hours of work per day for the slave will only increase the number of runaways they’ve suffered and thus cause the plantation to suffer more. However Everett convinces his father to hire more overseers in order to ensure his increased work output. Everett hires the overseer Zeb who is a poor white farmer. In his first scene Zeb is arguing with his Reverend about the morality of slavery. When Everett asks if Zeb would consider being an overseer despite its inhumanity, Zeb ignores his Reverend’s advice and resolves to be an overseer on Hiram’s plantation in order to provide for his children.
In Robert Nemiroff’s critical background of this play, he writes how Lorraine Hansberry showed how plantation economies towards the Civil War focused on the production of slaves more than they did the production of cotton. Everett was a character who, by hiring Zeb and by proposing the increase in the number of hours worked per day, was more interested in producing slaves than in producing cotton. Hannibal is a slave on Hiram’s plantation who is defying rules of patriarchy by learning how to read. His mother Sarah who is a sort of mammy to Hiram, is trying to secure a place with Hiram for Hannibal to be a house slave. However Hannibal tells his mother he would rather runaway than be a house slave. Unfortunately, Hannibal is caught learning how to read from Hiram’s youngest son Tommy. His eyes are gouged and Hannibal is blinded. In The Drinking Gourd, Everett represents progress which means keeping the patriarchal system intact. In Stick Fly, Flip represents progress which also means keeping the patriarchal system intact. While Sarah wanted to keep the patriarchal system intact so her son could have a role in it as a house slave, Hannibal entirely rejected this system and sought to undermine it by joining the runaways. By blinding Hannibal, Everett and Zeb confirm their making of Hannibal invisible and they hope that he sees himself as such as well. Hannibal was blinded because he wants to read. He will use his knowledge to read in order to navigate the world outside of Hiram’s plantation in order to challenge it and undermine it. Cheryl’s ability to read is part of what leads her to challenge the Levay household. She understands the importance of being loved, receiving attention. She reads and appreciates the point in James Bradley Scott’s book about the debt due to slavery being passed to shippers then bankers and ultimately takes a position that critiques the system that builds debt by rendering indigenous and African bodies invisible and consequently inhumane. Hansberry’s story ends with all of Hiram’s skepticism about Everett’s plan being confirmed. The last scene of this screenplay has Hiram’s enslaved including Hannibal running away with guns, ultimately undermining Hiram’s patriarchal structure. Hansberry seems to show how Everett’s insistence on creating slaves rather than cotton precipitated the fall of his father’s plantation. The last scene of Stick Fly has Dad looking at Cheryl and choosing to continue not seeing her and continuing patriarchy. Diamond ultimately seems to be saying that whether its run by a white plantation owner or whether its run by a Black intellectual neurosurgeon: a kind of patriarchy that renders any human being invisible needs to be weakened if not destroyed. –RF.

Friday, December 16, 2011

my interview with Liza Mundy about Michelle Obama

Yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy about her 2008 biography of Michelle Obama entitled "Michelle." This book was researched and completed before the Obama inauguration. I loved reading this book and I loved my conversation with Liza Mundy. The book really helped me appreciate the ambition of Michelle Obama. The two major moves in Michelle Robinson's life came about as a result of her writing letters. This is before email became popular in the nineties. She wrote a letter to Sidley Austin when she was in Princeton. It was because of this letter that got her in their Chicago law firm where she met her future husband. While at Sidley Austin, she wrote a letter to Valerie Jarrett, who worked in the Daley mayoral administration who was so impressed with her letter and her conversation, that she invited Michelle Obama to work with her in the Daley administration. Michelle Obama's letter writing is a testament to the importance of reading and writing in the lives of African Americans. Michelle Obama is a descendant of an enslaved people who were persecuted for learning to read, in order to remain psychologically enslaved and enslaved by law. Michelle Obama, however, uses her free will ability to read and to write to advance herself and break the gender norms of domesticity that much of her female descendants were proscribed by. I agreed with Mundy's point in this biography that Michelle Obama is a "radical integrationist" and I am interested in how her role as this is changing American society. Most of all I appreciate how Liza Mundy's writing of Michelle Obama shows how she is so much greater than the domesticated First Lady role that mainstream America wants to proscribe her to. Michelle Obama is much bigger than the role she plays as First Lady. I hope this interview and Liza Mundy's book is a testament to this. -RF.