Stick Fly, The Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, 90046. Opens April 11. Previews March 26-April 10. Performances Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm. Through May 31. Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors. Call 323.960.7740 or visit www.matrixtheatre.com.
Founder Joe Stern debuts a new era of multicultural programming at The Matrix Theatre Company with the West Coast premiere of Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney (Yellowman), the play features Chris Butler, Avery Clyde, Tinashe Kajese, Terrell Tilford, John Wesley and Michole Briana White.
Set in the Martha’s Vineyard summer home of an upper middle class African American family, the dramedy explores parental expectations and sibling rivalry amidst the intertwining issues of class and race.
LA STAGE: Â This is the first full season you’ve programmed in several years. How did it came about?
JOE STERN: This is something I’ve been thinking about for a little over three years. I wanted to reinvent the Theatre Company. It’s something I’ve done in my own personal work, which is dealing with race and breaking down conditioning. When I was doing Law & Order, I think I hired the most minorities in the history of television playing roles as lawyers and judges. When I produced Judging Amy, which was a different kind of show, there were multiple story lines for Tyne Daly as a social worker and Amy Brenneman as the family court judge. What we tried to do was change the scripts in terms of gender and race so there were more opportunities. Widen the palate so the stories were more diversified in terms of ethnicity. It was something we did even though it wasn’t written that way. In effect, you more represent our society and ultimately break down the conditioning of the audience by accepting people in different roles.
LAS: What is your new multi-ethnic focus?
JS: I want to change the orientation of the Matrix without giving it a mission statement because I don’t want to be too self-conscious. I want to build a multi-ethnic company to deal with all races and material artistically. I don’t have a set season. I want one play to have color content, which this one has, then another would be non-traditional casting and double cast with different races sharing the same role. So you could see a multi-ethnic All My Sons as opposed to a black version of Death of a Salesman, which they are now doing. That was not my intent. Then perhaps an indigenous casting piece.
LAS: How did you go about exploring this new direction?
JS: Bill Rausch is helping me. Bill directed an episode of Judging Amy and we became friendly. As I became his sort of consigliere, he became mine because of the Cornerstone Theatre Company. So we had some symposiums and round tables with some of the best and brightest in Los Angeles–writers, directors, people of different races–at the Cornerstone a couple of times to discuss what I was trying to do. I’m not trying to be dogmatic. I try to present things in a very simple way and see where it leads them.
LAS: So is Stick Fly part of what you’re calling this new renaissance?
JS: Yes, this is part of it. In the past, I would call my set of people and three weeks later we’d be in rehearsal. This time it involved a lot of different people I didn’t know, so I got stuck a little bit trying to figure out what I was trying to do. Now I’m widening my community. It’s a learning curve and a test of my own producing abilities. This was long before Obama was even in the picture.
LAS: Speaking of President Obama, how does Stick Fly fit in “post-racial” America? Do you think his election softens or expands the opportunities for racially themed plays?
JS: Just because Obama is President doesn’t mean there isn’t great marginalization going on interracially. Â It’s just as needed as ever because people think we’re OK now because we elected a black President. I’ve always felt that race is the most important theme in our lives. More is written about it, more is talked about it. How subtextual it is.
The question I posed to my actors was, if you can answer two questions the way I think you’re going to answer them, this is why I’m doing it. The first question is, when you do a play here in Los Angeles and you look out at the audience, how many non-white faces do you see? How many people of color do you interact with in your daily life? You know the answer.
I think it’s in the air. Â You have a lot more African American plays. You have the Ebony Theatre now. What I’m doing is a little different in the sense I’m trying to go for something completely diverse without knowing where it’s going to go. I’m hoping it hits, which I think it will, and then I can extend it for a couple of months. I want to have the off nights for workshops, people developing things and maybe commissioning a play. It’s sort of dedicating the theatre to diversity.
LAS: How did you come to this particular piece?
JS: I decided I wanted to meet Shirley Jo Finney who directed Yellowman at the Fountain, which I thought was a terrific production. Â It inspired me. When I looked around the audience, it was so mixed I thought, wow, this is great! This is what theatre should be. A year later, I got Shirley Jo’s phone number and called her up. I don’t think she knew who I was. We had lunch and three months later we had lunch again and kept talking. I kind of went after her. I thought she was the quintessential person to kick this off artistically, spiritually, whatever way. We began to talk about different things she’d done and what we could do. Then she told me about this play she’d directed maybe eight months earlier at the McCarter at Princeton.
LAS: What attracted you to Stick Fly?
JS: I thought the most interesting thing about it was a voice you don’t see much in the American theatre, which is an upwardly middle class African American family. Most things are about lower classes. We had a reading of it to see how it took and it went gangbusters. I said, you know what? I don’t know what else I’m going to do but let’s get started. It’s been three years, let’s put the pressure on me to follow through. So that’s what happened. I just sort of took an existential leap.
The major thing about this play is Lydia Diamond’s voice. Â I think she has a chance to be an important writer. She’s written other plays and received commissions from Steppenwolf and the Huntington. So she’s got a pretty good pedigree at this point.
LAS: You’ve got great people in this production.
JS: I’ve got a tremendous cast. All these actors are new to me. I first saw most of them at the reading. I knew Chris Butler because I’d seen him in Yellowman but other than that I was not familiar with them. Â Wait until you see the set! It’s one of the biggest high tech sets I’ve ever had. You won’t believe it. It’s an entire summer home. John Iacovelli designed it. It’s quite something. It’s a Broadway production.
LAS: You mentioned programming on the off nights.
JS: We’re talking with Patti Winston about doing something she did at Denver Center Theatre, which is letters from African slaves. I think we’re going to augment the program in May on the off nights. I’m almost 99% positive that we’re going to do it. It’s like Love Letters because you can have name people come in and do it every night.
LAS: Does that mean the Matrix will be exclusively doing your productions or will there be rentals?
JS: The hope is that it will exclusively be the Matrix. We will try to go as long as the money lasts and figure out how to keep going. Now if I turn around and I’m broke, if no one turns up for this show then you may see me renting in July. You never know. Not my goal but I think this show will succeed and extend a little bit and buy me some time.
LAS: What I hear you saying is that the old era of The Matrix Theatre Company is over.
JS: I’m just not going to be doing the fare I was doing before. Â I’m not going to do so-called mainstream theater although I’ve done a lot of classics. Right now I’m more interested in pursuing this idea. I think if people begin to see what we’re doing and there’s no exclusivity to it, they’ll get interested. I’ve decided to stop thinking for the most part now and just do it. Just go by instinct.
LAS: So stalwarts of the Matrix may or may not be involved in the new company.
JS: I think they will be involved. They’ve come to a lot of the readings. They’re extremely supportive. They read this play. About 20 of my actors called me and said you should do this. I’m just trying to create a home and a buzz that will attract different people and different races and just see where it lands. So it’s sort of a pilot program for a year, hoping to do three plays. There’s enough money to do that. The hope is then we’ll attract other money. I actually wouldn’t mind giving some of it away for free to people who can’t afford it. Not unlike Joe Papp.
Feature imago of Chris Butler and Terrell Tilford in Stick Fly.
Photo by I.C. Rapoport