10/8/2020 FLEX Theatrical Outfit's Downtown Dialogues
The WNBA was (finally) officially formed on April 24, 1996. From our vantage point in 2020, it is sobering to remember that prior to that date, female basketballers had no professional outlets, no means of starting a Hoops Career, and scholarship opportunities for low-income athletes were possible only because of the 1972 Title IX Amendments.
For all intents and purposes, prior to 1996, “Hoops Dreams” were a strictly male option.
Which brings us to Candrice Jones’ Flex, a fast-paced ride into the dreams of the Plainnole Lady Trains in 1997. The team is bursting with ambition at the prospect of scouts from universities across the country seeing their championship season playoffs, scouts who are Step One of that desired WNBA payoff career. Added to that stress is, of course, all the pressures that come with being poor and black in rural Arkansas, not to mention navigating the hormonal traps of adolescence.
Team Captain Starra Jones was (almost) literally born dribbling a basketball – her mother was a star player who could have won a scholarship herself, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant. And it soon becomes evident that Starra will stop at nothing to win that championship. But there’s that newcomer, Sidney, coming to their Arkansas town from California, filled with west coast ideas and with king-sized talent. Cherise is the calm center of the team, filled with Southern Baptist faith, and calling on the Almighty to boost the chances of a Lady Trains victory. Donna would sometimes rather be reading than playing, but that doesn’t stop her from bringing her “A” game when it’s time. And April is the ace shooter, the one who will mean the difference between winning and losing. But Coach Pace is forced to bench April, due to an unexpected pregnancy.
Flex follows these five players and their coach through regionals and states, showing them bond and bicker, practice and play, celebrate their “sisterhood” even as they plot against each other. Make no mistake, Starra shows all the signs of being a “mean girl” and plays a trick against Sidney that is especially heinous. Eventually, the play reaches its exciting States finale, but we (and the characters) are left to wonder if the prize were worth the pieces of soul that were shed along the way.
I really liked this script, despite my biases against sports in general and many sports stories. (I’ve often said that “I don’t like sports because sports don’t like me,” and admit with misplaced pride that I’ve never watched a Super Bowl.) I was always the nerd that the jocks bullied, the one who never dated. And yet, here we have five characters, totally alien to my experience, to my life, indeed almost a completely different species. And yet, something about them moved me, reminded the geeky teenager still buried in me that pure rapture can be found in “The Dream,” that goal that will provide the fast ride out of an unbearable life. That these characters dream revolves around basketball in no way diminished them for me.
And they are so human, so flawed. They do questionable things and make terrible decisions. But those decisions are so recognizable, so “If I had been in their Nikes, I just may have made the same choices.” That they bear the consequences of their choices with equanimity, even grace, elevated them (IMHO) and makes them worthy to play alongside the casts of many recent sports-themed plays (including 2019’s The Wolves, which I also truly loved.)
Director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden had the unenviable task of taking an active, movement-centric script and making it work as a Zoom reading. I am in actual awe of how well she succeeded, despite games and practices existing on a verbal (not visual) level. Yes, the details of the title “Flex” maneuver remain stubbornly opaque to my non-sports-friendly brain, but the excitement of it, the “We Can Do This in Our Sleep” ease with which the team always executed it, the success of its employment came through loud and clear. It helps that Ms. Jones writes compelling and character-centric dialogue, and the spoken Stage Directions were written with the same lyricism and elegance as that dialogue.
The young cast were also amazingly effective. Despite having only a few hours rehearsal time, none of them looked as if they were reading. Asha Basha Duniani brought to Starra an assurance and a drive that made her choices all the more aggravating, her struggle to atone all the more compelling. Jazmine Stewart (Sidney), Therecia Lang (Cherise), Keara Jones (April), and Kristin Jeter (Donna) were all equally memorable, equally sharp and distinct with their characterizations. April Parker Jones (TV’s Jericho) was a very effective Coach Pace, the “Adult in the Room,” an anchor for the team who must balance her affection for her charges with the rules that keep the game fair, that keep the players safe.
So, will these women be the “alpha players” after the game, after high school? Without question, they grow throughout the play and their future SHOULD be rosy. And to be honest, I would love to see a “20-
years-later” sequel showing us where they are now as adults.
Flex, unfortunately, was a one-night only reading, part of Theatrical Outfit’s Downtown Dialogue series. It was followed by a stimulating conversion featuring the director, the playwright, WABE’s Rose Scott (a former sports announcer), and Kiesha Brown (WNBA veteran and varsity basketball coach at the Galloway School). I really like the idea of these conversation starters (and this one, truth to tell, gave me a good jumping-off point for this column), and strongly recommend you watch future installments (Eureka Day by Jonathan Spector on October 21 and Stew by Zora Howard on November 12).
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TODowntownDialogues #Flex)