Artistic director Richard Cook has started to realize the fruits of Park Square Theatre’s artistic associates program. In 2011, Cook brought on four people — actors, directors, playwrights — hoping they would feed the theater with ideas and projects from new perspectives.
“Stick Fly,” now in previews, is the third show this season in which Park Square has put diversity on its stage, thanks to the associates. Director Brian Balcom’s musical recommendation, “Johnny Baseball,” began the year with a look at the racist history of the Boston Red Sox; “Or,” chosen by Carson Kreitzer, gave voice to another rising woman playwright, Liz Duffy Adams.
“Stick Fly” got on the radar of associates James A. Williams and Aditi Kapil. The play about an African-American family summering on Martha’s Vineyard is written by Lydia Diamond.
“I give all the credit to Richard that he was willing to put it in front of our audience and see what happens,” said Williams. “The base audience is great for trying things and maybe saying, ‘That’s not my cup of tea’ but they come back for the next show. They are adventurous.”
Williams first heard about “Stick Fly” in 2007 when he was performing in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” on Broadway. The play’s concept intrigued him because Diamond was depicting upper-class blacks — a group rarely seen on stage, Williams said.
“I liked the idea that it talked about a level of experience that is based on classism as well as racism,” he said.
“Stick Fly” drew the attention of singer Alicia Keys, who helped get the show produced on Broadway in 2011, and also contributed incidental music. Cook said the music “blew me out of the house,” in a bad way. Williams laughed and defended the choice: “It’s Alicia Keys — you’d be crazy not to use her music.”
The production, directed by Kenny Leon, caught some criticism for its eager solicitation of laughs.
“I didn’t enjoy the Broadway production,” said Cook, “but I felt there was more to the play, and so did James.”
Williams agreed that the staging was “Broadwayized,” but he also thought the humor was grounded in African-American experience.
“It’s funny based on the tradition of our humor, where we laugh through our tears and our pain,” he said. “The audience was 70 percent African-American, and there were laughs of recognition.”
Bringing it here
Despite any personal misgivings, Cook recognized the enthusiasm of Williams and Kapil. He also got director Marion McClinton into the conversation, and quickly decided he wanted the show for Park Square. Then things got dramatic in a way that demonstrates how nothing is finished until it is finished.
Cook talked with Diamond’s agent and thought he was in line for the Twin Cities premiere.
“Then the show closed and the agent transferred the rights to one of the publishing houses and our request didn’t get handed off in a technical way,” Cook said.
The publishing house put the show out for bids and specifically made an offer to Penumbra, which in turn got into discussions with the Guthrie. Cook got on the phone with the agent to protest.
“They dropped the ball in New York and I had some anxious moments,” he said. “None of us went after each other, but the industry had pitched us against each other for a few days.”
A family reunion
McClinton will direct the Park Square production, which features Williams as the patriarch who gathers his sons and their girlfriends for a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard. Darius Dotch and Darrien Burks play the sons. The girlfriends are Tracey Maloney and Traci Allen. Brittany Bradford plays a key role as the daughter of the family’s maid.
“We’ve been working with African-American talent purposefully over the past few years,” Cook said. “This is their story.”
For his part, Williams credits Cook for staging “Gee’s Bend,” “American Family,” “Johnny Baseball” and now “Stick Fly” — all plays intentionally about African-American stories.
“I’m interested to see how this is received by a Minnesota audience — white and black,” he said.