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Theatre in Review: Flex (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

Erica Matthews, Tamera Tomakili. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz deploys a varsity squad of fresh faces in Flex, starting with playwright Candrice Jones, who shows how a lively new voice can revivify what might otherwise be a fairly standard sports drama. To be sure, her tale of internecine conflict among the members of an all-Black girls' basketball team in Plainnole, Arkansas (circa 1998) has its formulaic aspects -- including, but not limited to, a tart confrontation between a hard-charging coach and a hot-dogging star player, and a big game on which several futures hang -- but she has a feel for time and place, writes zinging dialogue, and creates freshly imagined characters. Lincoln Center Theater may have a major summer crowd-pleaser on its schedule.

The members of the Lady Train are justly celebrated in their basketball-mad corner of the world, but when we meet them, they're in danger of falling apart. The highly aggressive Starra Jones (whose late mother was a top player in her time) is locked in a rivalry with Sidney Brown, a phenom whose fame has followed her from California. (College scouts are already seeking out Sidney, to Starr's barely contained fury.) Cherise Howard, the team's token evangelical -- she is a licensed youth minister and is forever trying to arrange a group baptism -- knows about the borderline-unforgivable act that Starra has committed against Sidney, but she keeps her mouth shut, in part because she is guiltily enjoying a romance on the down low with her teammate Donna Cunningham. The most immediate crisis, however, is triggered by April Jenkins, who, despite the team's no-sex pact, has gotten herself pregnant, resulting in her being benched. As the play begins, all are going through their paces at practice wearing pregnancy suits that Donna has filched from biology class. Coach Francine is not impressed by such demonstrations of solidarity.

As the teammates face off against a host of complications that include dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, homophobia, and a road trip to an abortion clinic, Flex deftly interlaces the challenges of maturing with the fate of the team in the upcoming state tournament. It is frequently noted that a sports scholarship is the best ticket out of town for at least two players, but life is rushing them all toward decisions that they're not necessarily ready to make.

The cast consists entirely of new faces, all of whom you'll swear have been lifelong friends, so cohesive is their ensemble work. Erica Matthews is ferociously focused as Starra, holding her ground even when caught scheming against Sidney; she wants a scholarship to a Division 1 school and doesn't care how she manages it. Tamera Tomakili pushes back effectively as Sidney, who never planned on ending up in Arkansas for her senior year and isn't too happy about it. Brittany Bellizeare is a font of mordant observations as April; she also nails the play's most extended aria, an account of the abuse that has been handed down in her family from generation to generation. ("I'm getting as far away as I can from the big fat Plainnole family lie. This lie that family got your back. Everything they tell you is the truth and all you have to do is lean on them in times of trouble. I tried to lean on mine and all I got was silence and blank stares.") Some of the funniest exchanges are shared by Ciara Monique and Renita Lewis as Cherise and Donna, the latter of whom keeps reminding her girlfriend that multiple baptisms aren't "gonna wash the gay away." "We need to be right with God before going out in the world," Cherise insists. "Cherise, you going to college twenty minutes away," Donna deadpans. Fiercely riding herd on them is Christiana Clark as Coach Francine, who has some hard truths to reveal about her late friend, Starra's mother. (It's worth noting that everyone seems totally at home on the court, an important skill for a production in which landing a shot often has plot-related implications.)

The production features an inventive set design by Matt Saunders that instantly transforms from a dirt court in a backyard to a gymnasium interior, also making room for an onstage car, which disassembles during a set change that earns audience applause. Adam Honoré's lighting adds unobtrusive bits of movement and saturated color that highlight key dramatic moments. Mika Eubanks' costumes, in and out of uniform, feel authentic; she crafts an especially attractive and in-character ensemble for Coach Francine. Palmer Hefferan's sound effects bring the game alive onstage.

Some of Jones' plotting -- the discovery of an incriminating letter, the sudden appearance of Coach Francine in a moment of crisis -- is awfully convenient, but she artfully balances comedy with an appreciation of the cold facts of life and she confidently handles a triptych of confrontations that drive the action to the tournament that provides the climax. She's a real talent and also a lucky one, being so well-served in her New York début. Credit Lincoln Center Theater for the assist. --David Barbour

(24 July 2023)

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