They all look pregnant, their bellies as big as the basketball they’re dribbling and shooting at the beginning ofCandrice Jones’s play “Flex.” But four of these five high school seniors are wearing pregnancy suits, in a show of support for the fifth, April, who is the only one who actually broke their pact of “ No drinkin’, no smokin’, no sex.”Her teammates are trying to convince their coach that April’s pregnancy is not a reason to kick her off of The Lady Train; they need her in order for this team of Black teenagers in Plainnole, Arkansas to win the state championship of 1998.
It’s a pointed scene, and a quietly funny one. It’s also close to thrilling, because the basketball playing by the ensemble feels somewhere between authentic court moves (both the playwright and director Lileana Blain-Cruz reportedly played high school basketball) and lively choreography.
The importance of teamwork, then, drives both the message of “Flex” — the very title of the play is the name of a specific strategy in the game that requires such teamwork – and the strongest moments of the production. But the plot has that teamwork threatened by the tensions, hidden desires, secrets and ambitions that put the individual characters at odds with one another and threaten the success of the team. And, compared to those ensemble moments, the play’s individual stories offer fewer thrills, and sometimes feel less authentic.
Erica Matthews portrays the point guard Starra, the captain of the team for years and its driving force, who yearns for the professional career denied her mother in the newly formed WNBA. Her dream feels threatened by the interest college recruiters have shown in newcomer Sidney (Tamera Tomakill), a transfer from California — so much so that Starra engages in an act of bizarre sabotage to try to get Sidney eliminated from the team.
Clara Monique portrays Cherise, who is so religious that she has just gotten her youth minister license, but she can’t deny the mutual sexual attraction with Donna (Renita Lewis.) And then there’s April (Brittany Bellizeare), who has many good reasons not to want to have this child – only one of which is that Coach (Christiana Clark) has banned any player who gets pregnant; because when she was a player, she ignored the pregnancy of a teammate, with tragic results.
The production recommends audiences be at least 16 years old. That is probably due to an extended scene where the girls get together in Sidney’s home and demonstrate how to put a condom on a cucumber. So it’s intriguing that the scenes involving April’s contemplation of abortion feel as if they are written for an afternoon special, carefully not taking a stand (It was not even completely clear to me what she winds up doing.)
Given the play’s message of the importance of teamwork, it is somewhat ironic that Erica Matthews emerges as the unmistakable star of the production, because she is the only one who shows us her prowess in the sport; several times, the plot pivots on her ability to shoot the ball into the basket. But it’s hard to fault any of the acting.
The production is aided by the imaginative set design by Matt Saunders, who offers us several different basketball courts, and an entire car, complete with working headlights, which crew members dressed as referees, take apart before our eyes, while the teammates sit inside of it — as if a metaphor for the inevitable separation of the members of this well-run machine.
In the lobby of the Mitzi Newhouse, the theater put up a bulletin board that asks “What was your high school dream?” with dozens of post-it notes in reply. One said “To be Dr. Ruth and own an art gallery.” Another: “To operate on the brains and hearts of people.” But a third had scribbled: “To play for Christ the King and get drafted into the WNBA.” I suspect she was one of the theatergoers who whooped and hollered at the champion game that’s rather predictably dramatized at the end of “Flex”
Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse through August 20, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Written by Candrice Jones
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Sets by Matt Saunders, costumes by Mika Eubanks, lighting by Adam Honoré, sound by Palmer Hefferan, stage manager Charles M. Turner
Cast: Brittany Bellizeare as April Jenkins, Christiana Clark as Coach Francine Pace, Eboni Edwards as the sophomore/referee, Renita Lewis as Donna Cunningham, Erica Matthews as Starra Jones, Ciara Monique as Cherise Howard, Tamera Tomakill as Sidney Brown