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A Newcomer Is Showing Her Comfort Among Stars – New York Times

New York Times
By BRUCE WEBER
January 4, 2012
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The second act of “Stick Fly,” Lydia R. Diamond’s meaty soap opera about an affluent black family, begins with its youngest character, 18-year-old Cheryl, the daughter of the family’s maid, on the phone in the family’s well-appointed kitchen. She’s getting bad news from her mother. Life-changing bad news.

In a play where there is almost always a crowd of people onstage who are at cross purposes about race, class or gender, it’s a rare moment of privacy. And for Condola Rashad, the actress who plays Cheryl and is making her Broadway debut in “Stick Fly,” it’s the toughest scene in the show.

“No one’s on the phone,” Ms. Rashad explained during a recent lunchtime interview. “I’m literally out there hurting my own feelings.”

She paused, then elaborated:

“You know how there’s always the one girl in drama school who can cry at the drop of a hat? She has that emotional well she can tap into in a second? I’m not that girl. It takes a lot to get me to that place.

“The way I work emotionally is: I don’t ever try to cry. I try not to, which is what for me produces organic emotion. But the director wanted something specific, he wanted it to be that emotional, so it’s a matter of me making up dialogue.

“During the entire intermission I have to be on the phone in my head. For, like, 20 minutes I’m hurting my own feelings.”

At 25, Ms. Rashad, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts in 2008, seems poised between drama school and stardom. She’s young enough that college is still her most formidable point of reference. She likes to begin sentences with “My thing is…,” peppers conversation with “totally” and “awesome,” and speaks about herself as an actress with an earnest delight in self-discovery.

But now, in her second major stage role — just out of school she played a rape victim in “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama set in the Congolese civil war — she is getting used to being recognized for gifts that go beyond the scope of her limited experience or her famous family name — she’s the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad.

Among a “Stick Fly” cast that includes TV stars (Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer) and Broadway veterans (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms), “the discovery of the evening is the quietly captivating Ms. Rashad,” Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times. “Even when she is hovering at the edges of the drama, passing in and out of the kitchen or refilling wineglasses in the living room, Ms. Rashad’s Cheryl is a powerful presence, sensitive to every hint of condescension directed her way.”

Kenny Leon, the director of “Stick Fly,” cast Ms. Rashad after she came to audition for a role opposite Samuel L. Jackson in another new Broadway play, “The Mountaintop.” That part was eventually given to Angela Bassett, an actress almost three decades older.

“Condola was too young to play the part in ‘Mountaintop,’ but she had a maturity that made me think she can do older and sexy,” Mr. Leon said. “Most actresses, they can do blue, red, green and that’s it, they do what they do. But if I say to Condola, ‘Do blue,’ she says, ‘What shade of blue do you want?’ ”

Kate Whoriskey, the director of “Ruined,” added in an e-mail:

“I think she is one of America’s great talents. When Condola came in to audition, she had a preternatural understanding of acting. Many actors transitioning from training to the professional world fall into two traps. They try to show all of the skills they learned at school in a 10-minute audition, or they play at being young rather than acknowledge that they bring their age into the room with them. What struck me about Condola’s audition was her economy of choices and her stillness.”

She is tall, coltish and strikingly pretty with huge doe eyes; her looks betray her celebrity pedigree. Her father is the broadcaster and former All-Pro wide receiver. Her mother won a 2004 Tony Award for her role as the family matron in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and, more famously, played Clair Huxtable, the mother in the groundbreaking hit “The Cosby Show.”

In separate interviews both parents (who divorced when Condola was a teenager) said that they didn’t have to warn their daughter about the trappings of fame because they didn’t bring their celebrity home with them.

“She knows it’s the work that matters,” Phylicia Rashad said. “If not for the work, no one would be a celebrity, except for the Kardashians.”

The family lived in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. As a child young Condola studied classical piano, and she still considers music a calling; lately she’s been writing songs for piano and guitar.

She went to the Fieldston School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a private academy not unlike the one Cheryl  is sent to in “Stick Fly.”  Unlike her character Ms. Rashad wasn’t an outsider in that world — and didn’t feel like one.

“I wasn’t Cheryl, though I had friends like her,” Ms. Rashad said. “Girls who came from that kind of background, whose mothers might have been a maid — you could tell that in the streets they could hold their own — but they were aware of themselves, they knew how to speak correct English.

“So when Cheryl gets mad, definitely the street comes out. But my thing is, like, it’s only going to be realistic if I really can be in touch with that other side of her, not to make it so over the top just to make it funny, because then 18-year-olds who come see it are going to go, ‘Nope, that’s not us.’ ”

By all accounts relations between the parents and child are swell. Her father, Ms. Rashad said, “is my hero,” someone who has never missed a show in which she has appeared and has already been to “Stick Fly” half a dozen times; he once flew from South Africa to Los Angeles to catch her in a student production, she said.

“That’s true,” Mr. Rashad said in a phone interview. “Though I did have a hard time staying awake at the play.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps can be difficult, though Ms. Rashad acknowledged that the family name gives her a leg up; she’s known Mr. Leon, who directed her mother twice on Broadway, since she was a little girl.

She can remember going to work with her mother toward the end of the Cosby run. (“She was pregnant with me one season,” Ms. Rashad said, “so that was my debut.”) And watching her mother on the set shaped her aspirations early.

Phylicia Rashad recalled that when Condola was 4, she announced, “I’m going to be on ‘The Cosby Show,’ and my mother will be my assistant.”

But even before that, “she sat at the piano one day and began to play,” Phylicia Rashad said. “She hadn’t had instruction, and it was interesting to see that she touched the keys gingerly. She didn’t bang. That showed sensitivity. And she said: ‘Mommy, I need a reading teacher, a piano teacher and a dancing teacher. Can you get me those things?’ ”

Condola Rashad said she and her mother are very different personalities, and she admitted that she is not above flaunting her idiosyncrasies.

“My mom is revered as this glamorous, regal woman,” she said. “She doesn’t even mean to be, she’s just, um, a queen. Even when you’re just talking to her, she has this air about her, and I’m just like a weird, quirky person.”

“We celebrate our differences now, but there are things she had a hard time with,” Ms. Rashad added. “I came back from Cal Arts with tattoos” — she has a peacock feather on her right wrist and an African-American mermaid along her left side, among others — “playing guitar on the rooftop, blasting rock ’n’ roll from my room, and she was, like, ‘What is happening?’ ”

Informed of her daughter’s comments, Phylicia Rashad laughed.

“If that’s her assessment, that’s just lovely,” she said. “I’m glad she thinks of her mother as royalty, but the child of royalty is royalty also.”

Stick Fly Scribe Lydia R. Diamond on Getting 'Lucky' with Producer Alicia Keys and Director Kenny Leon – Broadway Buzz

Broadway Buzz
By Lydia R. Diamond
November 22, 2011
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Stick Fly began when I was writing another play called Voyeurs de Venus. It’s about Saartjie Baartman, who was derogatorily referred to as the Hottentot Venus—it was a horrible, sad, awful, gruesome show to write and to research, though it is an entertaining, sometimes heartbreaking, often funny play to see. To give myself an emotional break, I decided to write something a little more fun, and that became Stick Fly. It was also an exercise in writing a structurally traditional play, which was very different from what I’d written before. I told myself that I was going to experiment with the form on the Aristotelian well-made play, and that is how the impetus to do it was born. The people and themes were already in my mind, and I let them inform the events of the story.

We may be covering new territory for a Broadway play, but I don’t think it’s because this type of story hasn’t been written before. I think it’s because it’s taken us a little too long to embrace a different way of seeing African-Americans on stage. We’re very used to seeing our race portrayed in stories with the foot of the white man on the shoulders of the black people. But we haven’t been given a lot of room to tell our own stories—full of the various “things” humans deal with outside of the parameters of race. Stick Fly centers on a black family, so there are certainly conversations about race, but it’s really a story about family, love and relationships, and the kind of dynamics that we all deal with every day.

I want to be very humble and clear that I don’t think I’m the first person that’s written this kind of story. I’m just very lucky to be doing it at a time when we are coming to understand that this is another demographic in America and that theater can actually support a wider range of stories about people of color.

Stick Fly was first produced in Chicago by Congo Square Company, directed by Chuck Smith. I’d had a reading of it at Chicago Dramatists, where I’m a resident playwright, and the then-artistic director Derrick Sanders heard the first act of the play (all I’d written at that point!) and he committed to producing a full production. I quickly wrote the second act and the rest is history. These really nice kismet things kept happening. Derrick Sanders worked with Kenny Leon as the assistant director on Gem of the Ocean, and that led Kenny to become familiar with Stick Fly. Derrick then directed the show’s second production at Kenny’s company True Colors, and then Kenny came on board as the director for the last production before Broadway, a co-production with Arena Stage and the Huntington Theatre.

Kenny and [producer] Alicia Keys had worked together on her “As I Am” tour, and the president of her company saw Stick Fly performed in D.C. and Boston. Alicia fell in love with the script and wanted to be a part of bringing it to Broadway. The icing on this wonderful cake, which I attribute to her commitment to quality work, generosity of spirit and investment in the characters, is her commitment to write new music for the show. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Like any play, Stick Fly has gotten tighter and tighter every time we’ve done it. It’s such a luxury in America to be able to finesse a play over multiple developmental productions—playwrights need that. We’re a premiere-happy society, but I think the play isn’t actually finished until it has had its third production, and then it just gets better and better.

Kenny Leon is so talented. He is also a playwright’s dream of a director because, above all else, he values the words that the playwright has written. There’s nothing better for a playwright than to hear the director say to the cast on the first day of rehearsal, “Our job is to make these words sing.” It’s a wonderful way to begin a rehearsal process.

In the rehearsal room, Kenny is a fan of collaboration. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, which always makes for a fun time. It’s such a great cast—we’re having fun and working hard, and it’s pretty amazing. What’s not to enjoy about working with talented, intelligent, passionate people? We get to do what we do at the top of our game, and we never stop appreciating it. Everyone is just joyful, which I think is the way theater is supposed to be. I don’t know why you would do theater if you weren’t having fun, and telling a story you’re invested in! I’m a very, very lucky playwright.

 

Lydia R. Diamond on race, class and Broadway's 'Stick Fly' – Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times
By Patrick Pacheco
December 08, 2011
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Reporting from New York — Lydia R. Diamond, whose plays often work the intersection of race and class, remembers once posing a hypothetical scenario she knew would prompt heated debate.

The 42-year-old African American playwright and teacher contended that if the Obamas had a son and that son became the fiancé of somebody’s white daughter, the young woman’s family would not be happy, despite the breeding and connections.

“My white friends would say, ‘No, no, no, you’re wrong! Class would trump race,'” she recalls. “I wasn’t convinced — and still am not — that Grandma would be all that thrilled. No way would anybody want to see a black guy show up.”

But, she says, “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve so much less conviction about being right. There are so many gray areas. And this is where I write from.”

In “Stick Fly,” a comedy that opens Thursday on Broadway directed by Kenny Leon and produced by Alicia Keys, Diamond moves full steam into this tricky terrain. In the play, which had a well-received production at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles in 2009, sparks fly when two young African American men bring their respective girlfriends to meet the parents at their lavish summer getaway on Martha’s Vineyard.

The crusty patriarch Joseph LeVay, a neurosurgeon, has married into one of the Vineyard’s first families, though he often reminds his sons, Flip, a plastic surgeon, and Kent, an aspiring novelist, of his working-class roots. The LeVay family history impresses Taylor, Kent’s girlfriend and an entomologist whose lab work lends the play its title. Among the human specimens in the house who come under her scrutiny are Kimberly, Flip’s affluent and pretty white lover who works with underprivileged inner-city children; and 18-year-old Cheryl, a bright soon-to-be Ivy League college student who has taken over the household chores from her ailing mother, the LeVay’s longtime maid. Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson portrays Dr. LeVay, with Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer as his sons.

“Lydia is courageous to write about class and race in such a broad and complicated way,” says director Kenny Leon, who also directed “The Mountaintop” on Broadway this fall and was at the helm of the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. “It’s not about assigning blame. It’s about the universality of family and identity.”

Indeed, wealth, prestige and education are no cushion against the clashes that erupt in the course of the weekend visit. This occurs most memorably when a game of Scrabble deteriorates into a squabble between Taylor and Kimberly. When Taylor complains bitterly that the white students and teacher of her feminist seminar refused to acknowledge an inherent racism in their approach to a certain topic, Kimberly calls her on her hyper-sensitivity.

“Kimberly, because she has worked with kids on such a low economic standard, finds it difficult to understand why this woman with such beauty, tenacity and intelligence would cast herself as a victim,” says Diamond. “And Taylor simply feels that such overt displays of racism warrant questioning.” She adds that the pressure mounts because of submerged romantic and sexual connections among the four people. “As Kimberly later tells Flip, ‘That was about boys as much as it was about anything.'”

Alicia Keys says that it was just these “funny and smart” confrontations that led her to put her name above the title as producer and to compose incidental music for the show. “I just loved the way the characters purposefully challenged each other, even if they might argue the opposite of what they believed,” she says. “I do it myself sometimes to see who it drives mad and who can handle it. I think all families do that at these sorts of emotional gatherings.”

Although Diamond says that her play is not autobiographical, elements of the character of Taylor emerge as the playwright sits, dressed all in black, in a Midtown office. She is soft-spoken and thoughtful, a Boston-based mother, teacher and wife who finds the media spotlight somewhat intimidating in dealing with such prickly issues.

“I feel so vulnerable to being misunderstood that I pray that the black literati don’t come after me,” she says. “These conversations can be so charged and dangerous.”

While she teaches playwriting at Boston University, her husband John, a sociologist, lectures on achievement gap issues at Harvard. Asked where she herself might fit in at the LeVay home on Martha’s Vineyard, Diamond toys with a metal fly on a chain around her neck, a gift from an actress who was in a previous production of “Stick Fly,” which had a long gestation period in regional theater.