Just Try To Resist the Generous, Buoyant Spirit of Candrice Jones’s ‘Flex’
Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s guidance, the entire cast juggles the often deliciously salty comedy and rousing urgency that distinguish the play in equal parts.
Candrice Jones’s new play, “Flex,” opens with as charming a portrait of female camaraderie as you’re likely to see in a theater anytime soon. To describe it fully would require a spoiler, but suffice it to say it involves members of a girls’ basketball team, each of them 17 years old, showing solidarity for a teammate who has learned she is pregnant, and thus won’t likely be allowed to play for the remainder of the season.
Don’t get the wrong idea: “Flex,” which remains just as engaging throughout its two acts, is no sentimental tribute to sororal love. With all the talk of gals supporting and empowering their sisters in the wake of #MeToo, it has perhaps been tempting to underplay the extent to which girls and women can be really, really mean to each other — trust me on this — and Ms. Jones’s comedy finds both humor and poignance in acknowledging that fact.
Yet the young playwright and her director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, have infused “Flex” — the title is a basketball term, indicating a form of offense involving teamwork, I’ve learned — with such a generous, buoyant spirit that you can’t help being uplifted by it. That’s even though, clearly, none of its characters have lived the kind of lives where feel-good endings are guaranteed.
Captain and point guard Starra and her fellow players are all Black, as is their no-nonsense coach, whose rigor and warmth are enhanced by keen comic timing in a terrific performance by Christiana Clark. All have surely had to endure racism, but Ms. Jones’s focus, interestingly, is more on class. Starra is consumed with jealousy for Sidney, the ace shooting guard who has recently joined the team, primarily because Sidney’s skills have drawn the attention of fans and scouts.
Sidney is further set apart from the others, though, by having moved to their working-class town from a presumably more glamorous locale. “The only thing that separates me from Sidney Brown is that Sidney Brown is the golden girl from California and Starra Jones is from the dirt courts of Plainnole, Texas,” Starra observes drily at one point.
It’s not until the second act that we learn Sidney and her mother were “scraping and scrapping to get by” in Oakland before relocating. “Basketball is just as much of a ticket for me as it is for you, Starra,” she insists. Erica Matthews and Tamera Tomakili flesh out the contrasting personalities that inform the rivalry between, respectively, Starra and the more playful Sidney; Ms. Matthews is also compelling in gritty, lyrical asides that shed more light on Starra’s struggles and ambitions, and those of her community.
Under Ms. Blain-Cruz’s guidance, the entire cast juggles the often deliciously salty comedy and rousing urgency that distinguish the play in equal parts. Brittany Bellizeare is by turns piquant and haunting as the pregnant player, April; Ciara Monique contributes some of the funniest moments as the quirky Cherise, whose desire to lead a strictly pious life begins conflicting both with some of her friends’ choices and with her own heart.
“Flex” is, notably, set in the 1990s, with tunes by female hip-hop stars of the era such as TLC and Aaliyah indicated in the script, and not a smartphone in sight; the girls turn to gossip magazines for diversion. Matt Saunders’s delightfully witty set is anchored by a grungy basketball court that over the course of the play will accommodate a flashy car and, later, evolve into a crisper-looking venue for a high-stakes game. (The actors are all clearly capable ballplayers, and received additional coaching from Amber Batchelor of New York’s nonprofit Ladies Who Hoop.)
The dirt and dust enveloping Plainnole are evoked repeatedly, and prove a source of lingering bitterness for Starra, who ironically will have to “return to the earth,” as she’ll put it, to feel cleansed. Regardless of whether you’re a basketball fan, her physical and spiritual journey are bound to make you cheer.