Lydia R. Diamond

Stick Fly Playwright Lydia R. Diamond on Getting Produced on Broadway

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond is best known to New York theater audiences for her work Stick Fly. The play about an affluent African American family on Martha’s Vineyard was produced by singer-songwriter Alicia Keys during the 2011–2012 Broadway season—but Diamond has certainly been around longer than that. During her tenure at Northwestern University, the Detroit native wrote her first play, Solitaire, which was awarded the Agnes Nixon Playwrighting Award. Diamond has an impressive résumé of writing a plethora of award-winning works including, but not limited to, Harriet Jacobs, The Gift Horse, Voyeurs de Venus, and The Bluest Eye, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel of the same name.

During theater’s yearlong shutdown, Diamond pivoted to television writing, but reassures she will always return to the theater. She spoke with Broadway Direct about her path to playwrighting, what it meant to be produced on Broadway, and telling stories about Black people that don’t often get told.

Was playwrighting always your first choice?

No, but only because it never occurred to me. As a child, I read and loved stories. Books were my best friends for most of my childhood. I went to all of the shows and concerts that came through town, so it is not as though I hadn’t been exposed to theater—I just hadn’t thought of the playwrights. Later, I attended Northwestern University as a theater major, fully intending on becoming an actor. Then in my junior year, I took a playwriting class. It was the first time I had an opportunity to have an African American theater teacher. The wonderful playwright Charles Smith, who is now the head of the playwriting program at the University of Ohio, taught me. In this playwriting class I found an artistic outlet that was not predicated upon fitting myself into plays without characters who looked like me. Playwriting provided a space that gave me a sense of artistic autonomy. I could tell my own stories, populated with people who looked like me or the diverse array of people in my life. Still, though, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m a playwright.” After all, I’d already convinced my mother to let me be an actress. Also, I hadn’t been exposed to plays by people of color. I think we read The Dutchman and A Raisin in the Sun, and then there were the musicals from my youth. I just was so underexposed. It was not until 10 years into my career as an actor and playwright that I realized I was supposed to be a playwright. It was hard to let go of what I had decided I would be, to fully pursue that which I most clearly was meant to be. So it was a long journey to understanding, and fully embracing, that I was a playwright, and that that was enough. I didn’t have enough access to Black female writers who’d been there all along, amongst them Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Pearl Cleage. I graduated in 1991; it would be another 10 years before Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Kia Corthron were widely celebrated. It gave me an opportunity to develop a voice that was uniquely mine — a sort of brazenness out of a mistaken belief that I was actually forging away. Tragic and ridiculous. I’m so glad that now young artists have access to so many powerful Black women writers.

Let’s talk about Stick Fly, your first show to get produced on Broadway. What did that mean for you as an already established playwright?

It was huge, but I have to admit it was not until I was well into the experience that I realized fully what a big deal it was. Before my Broadway premiere, I’d already had plays produced in regional theatres. Because I was from Chicago, with a thriving theater world, I hadn’t been presented with a paradigm that made Broadway the penultimate. In Chicago, theater is relatively nonhierarchical. In my mind, to have “made it” meant to have had the privilege of having one’s plays mounted anywhere. Please know that I do not say that out of disrespect. It just took being in the center of it all to fully realize how career-defining it would be.

In the rehearsal room it was easy and fun. I was collaborating with [director] Kenny [Leon], a friend and mentor, with whom I had already collaborated several times. We had this wonderful cast and great design team, and it was a heady moment, as Katori Hall and Suzan-Lori Parks also had plays on Broadway at the same time.

You have such a vast catalog of plays. Why do you think Stick Fly was the one to move to Broadway?

I think Alicia Keys, Kenny Leon, and Nelle Nugent could see the potential for people to see themselves in it. Even prior to its Broadway debut, Stick Fly was already popular and had enjoyed successful runs at several theatres. It’s a “comfort food” sort of play. It’s enjoyable, family-oriented, full of drama, and still grounded in things that I think matter. It’s a funny play about family dynamics. I hear from such a diversity of audiences say, “Oh, we saw our family in this.” I also think there had been, at the time, a dearth of plays produced about these particular Black people. We had seen a lot of plays about the bad things that white people had done to us, historically. Important stories that must be told. Still, I hadn’t had a chance to see plays in which we were talking about our own dynamics. Yes, race is always going to be a part of any play that is populated by Black people in America. My play put issues of family and class in a setting that is authentic to the Black experience, just one not previously seen on stage much. I think that so many people saw themselves in it and felt represented in a different way.

What I liked about this play is that you created a group of intellectual Black characters. The Black female entomologist stuck with me the most. Martha’s Vineyard is also said to be a place where the Black elite go to live and vacation. Is it intentional that you portray smart, upper-class Black people on stage?

I’ve written plays with people from all walks of life. In this play, in particular, I knew that I wanted it to be a well heeled family. I wanted to put every class of Black people in a well appointed home, in a contemporary setting. This world was not foreign to me. I was very interested in a young protagonist who was a fish out of water, but not entirely. Taylor’s interesting because, though she’s grown up with quite a bit of cultural capital, the wealth had never been a part of her reality. She would never fully feel a part of the history of financial privilege that the family she’s marrying into had. That was important to me. I liked the idea of Martha’s Vineyard because, when I did my homework, I learned of the rich history of Blacks on the island. Not long after I wrote this play, my then-husband and I moved to Boston. He taught at Harvard and I was teaching at Boston University. We had a neighbor friend with a cottage in Chilmark that they rented out. Whenever they had a vacancy, they’d invite us to stay. It was ironic that this play, which had been a bit of a benchmark in my career, was set in a spot that I had not yet had real access to. I’m glad I got it right.

Can you tell me how you came up with the title Stick Fly and how it so poignantly connects to the story?

I was listening to NPR’s Science Friday. They were talking about entomologists and how they studied the movements of a fly by putting the fly on a stick. It just struck me as being so full of metaphor, this idea that you would have to glue a thing down to examine it. This idea of who’s being the examiner and who’s being examined and what all of that means. It resonated. The title was unpopular with producers and theater companies for a long time. They would ask, “Really? Stick Fly? Could we just consider a title that lets us know that the play is about Black people on Martha’s Vineyard?”

Let’s talk about the dynamic of having Kenny Leon as a director on this play. In particular, the Black playwright in tandem with a Black director taking on a play about Black people doesn’t happen often on Broadway, unfortunately. Hopefully that will change moving forward, but what was it like to work with Kenny at that time?

Kenny’s rehearsal rooms are so full of artistry, joy, and love. We laughed a lot. Kenny is incredibly collaborative. If you’re a playwright, what you want a director to say to you and mean is, “I’m invested in putting the play that you have written — that thing that’s in your head — on stage. That’s what we’re here to do.” He said that to the cast on the first day. That’s very empowering. Working on Broadway didn’t feel any different than being in any other rehearsal room, with Kenny. Then, all of a sudden, you get swept up in the press and the interviews and things like that. That’s the first time I was like, “Oh. This is a whole new ball game. Okay. Here we go.” There was Alicia Keys in the rehearsal room, and that’s like, “Oh, wow. That’s Alicia Keys in the rehearsal room.” I remember one day, Denzel Washington stopped by. I guess he and Kenny were going to have dinner. That happened. That was crazy. But mostly, it felt like home.

Will you continue to write plays or are you focused on other media at the moment?

I’m doing some television now because, after Stick Fly, the television world came to me. HBO approached me and said, “We bought the options for Stick Fly and would you please write it?” I hadn’t written a pilot before. I feel very blessed that I was able to learn how to write for television, being paid to write television. That was four and a half years of development; sadly, it never got done. Then I was approached to be in Sarah Treem’s writing room for the fourth season of The Affair. I was writing my most recent play, Toni Stone, at the time. Now I’m in another writer’s room. I can’t imagine deserting the theater, though. I asked Kenny once, “What brings you back to the theater?” Because when you’re working in television, you’re making considerably more money and no one’s going to write mean things about you in The New York Times. He was like, “It’s theater. It’s theater.” I feel the same way. There’s nothing like being in a room full of people and in dialogue with an audience. It’s thrilling and fulfilling. I also am respecting how hard and specialized television is. I think that there had been — prior to playwrights having entrée into the world of television — somehow a notion that television wasn’t high art. I think we’ve all been disabused of that. It’s an incredibly specialized, hard-to-do medium, and like theater, it takes skill and artistry to do it right. I appreciate the reach that good television has. Millions and millions of people who look like me can actually see a thing that I wrote. That’s heady. Right now in theater, on Broadway and elsewhere, we have to figure out how to get our stages to be more representative of what the country looks like. We have to figure out how to get our audiences to be more diverse. I will never stop writing plays. That’s my passion. But I do hope that we can evolve and be a little less elitist and a lot less white.

We are watching performing-arts institutions rethink how they have or have not incorporated diversity and inclusion. As a playwright of color, what are some of the challenges you faced or continue to face in your career?

They are no different than the challenges we face in any career. That’s the thing that I think is hard for theater people to hear. I think we tend to be liberal and tend to be more tolerant. The We See You White American Theater movement is challenging that complacency and forcing the industry to look at its own racism. All too often I am the only Black artist on the other side of the table. So often still the cast and myself will be the only Black people on the creative team. On the first day, when a theater has the meet-and-greet, and everybody in the theater company comes and welcomes the cast and listens to the first play, it’s all too often a room full of white people watching the Black cast read the play. Now white theaters are being slightly better about hiring Black directors and designers for Black plays. But this can be also problematic, as these artists obviously have the ability to design plays not only inhabited by Black people. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had, and encouraged by the efforts I see many white institutional leaders making. I also wish for granting organizations and donors to give more generously to Black companies that have been doing the work all along. There is so much work to be done, and on some days, I cautiously have hope that things are changing.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.