July 29, 2023

"Flex" Is One of The Summer Season's MVPs

It’s 1998 and the five starting players for the Lady Train, the all-black girls basketball team in a small Arkansas town, aren’t dirt poor or bougie rich. The problems they’re dealing with aren’t extraordinary either but the kinds of things familiar to teen girls everywhere. And those facts alone make Flex, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, a standout because its playwright Candrice Jones isn’t leaning into the predictable tropes of black trauma or white guilt that seem to have become almost mandatory these days when plays center around black characters. 

This doesn’t mean that Jones and her director Lileana Blain-Cruz are sidestepping the challenging realities of contemporary life. One of the players is pregnant and considering an abortion. Two are secretly in love and trying to navigate their relationship in a church-going community where homosexuality is considered a sin. And each sees her athletic prowess as a way to get a scholarship to a good college or to escape the provincialism of their hometown or to help define the woman she hopes to become.

The pleasure for theatergoers is that Jones, Blain-Cruz and the engaging cast and clever design team they’ve recruited have figured out how to turn all of this into a thought-provoking but often laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly entertaining time.  

The title is based on a basketball strategy in which no player showboats but each one works to support the greater good of the team as a whole. And that same approach works beautifully in this production too. Although a special shout-out has to go to set designer Matt Saunders for not only designing authentic-looking basketball courts but creating a full-size car that, with the assistance of Adam Honoré’s spot-on lighting and a crackerjack stage crew, draws a mid-show ovation.

Like many sports narratives, Flex follows its team’s efforts to win a championship. There are, of course, bumps along that journey. For starters, the Lady Train’s coach (Christiana Clark) forbids anyone who gets pregnant from playing, which means that valuable team member April (Brittany Bellizeare) will be benched, which means that the team's prospects will be put at risk. 

There’s also the dangerously acrimonious rivalry between a swaggering newcomer named Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) who has just moved to town from Oakland where she was such a hot shot that college scouts have now followed her to the Lady Train’s games; and the team’s longtime star player, the perhaps too-aptly named Starra (Erica Matthews) who is desperate to catch the eyes of those scouts. 

Jones is still a young playwright (the production of Flex that would have marked her professional debut was scheduled to be done in 2020 at the Humana Festival in Louisville but was canceled when the pandemic shut down theaters everywhere; click here to read more about that) and she does occasionally venture into melodrama or fall back on coincidence to move her plot along. 

But Blain-Cruz, who, like Jones, played basketball in high school, keeps the action moving so that the jokes land and the basketball choreography looks convincing (extra kudos to Matthews who manages to sink basket after basket) without sacrificing the show’s underlying message about the importance of team work on and off the court.

There have been some gripes from the critics but this show is a crowd-pleaser. And I saw far more young people than usual at the performance I attended, including groups of men who I suppose were drawn by the basketball theme. Flex clearly seemed to score for them. And it did for me too.

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