Whether you follow basketball or not, Candrice Jones’ Flex is exciting theater. Actually, the play is not only about women’s high school basketball but also passions, future plans, romance, sex, ethics, friendships, rivalries, betrayals, and possible dreams deferred for all of the play’s five teammates as we follow them from their home town games in Plainnole to the 1997-98 Arkansas High School Basketball State Championship. Using a cast of relatively unfamiliar performers all of whom are making their Lincoln Center Theater debuts, director Lileana Blain-Cruz best known for her work on new plays has kept the performance as taut as a real game throughout its two hours and 20 minutes length.
Starting in March 1998 and running through to the big game at the end of the season, Starra Jones (Erica Matthews), the Lady Train’s team captain, narrates by addressing her dead mother who was once a member of the team with the same aspirations to being pro that she has now. Matt Saunders’ versatile set starts on the dirt court behind Starra’s house and morphs into the school gymnasium, the living room of one the teammates, a car on the highway, a medical clinic and finally the championship game.
Having been brought up by her mother to believe in fouling if you don’t get caught, Starra has allowed that philosophy to spill over into the rest of her life. Starra finds herself in an intense rivalry with the team’s best player, Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) who has recently moved to Plainnole, Arkansas, to live with her grandmother from California where the scouts had her on their radar. When Starra attempts to eliminate her from competition, she gets caught by her teammates and must pay the consequences.
However, she is not the only one with a secret that can’t be kept. While the five-member team all took an oath to avoid drinking, smoking and sex so that nothing will stand in the way of their getting to the state championship, April (Brittany Bellizeare), one the shooting guards, had gone and gotten pregnant. While they all stick together to keep her on the team, the strict but understanding coach Francine Pace, (Christiana Clark), a former player has a rule that she won’t allow pregnant players to risk their baby on the court.
However, these three are not the only ones with a backstory. Cherise (Ciara Monique) has just gotten her youth ministry certificate and wants the others to let her baptize them in her father’s church to protect them from sin. Ironically, she is fighting her same-sex attraction to Donna (Renita Lewis), the tallest member of the team and possibly the best, who keeps her at arm’s length as she is planning to move to New Orleans for college and doesn’t have much time left in Plainnole. When April announces that she is planning to get rid of her baby so that she can stay on the team, all the girls as well as their coach weigh in as how they feel about that decision.
The play is structured like a basketball game and the final scene dramatizes the adrenaline-packed championship contest which will have you rooting for all the team members no matter your feelings about their ethics up until then. The other practice games throughout the play build up to that tense moment when all five young women narrate their involvement in the tournament. While all of the characters are Black, the play is less about race than socio-economic concerns as they envy Sidney’s previous Oakland life (incorrectly) and attempt to successfully raise the money to help April get her abortion.
The cast is uniformly excellent with characters so well defined by the author that we never have trouble keeping them separate even when they are dressed by designer Mika Eubanks in the same uniform. Matthews who has the most stage time as Starra who lusts after being a star athlete exhibits her ambiguous morality throughout the play. As her feared rival Sidney, Tomakili is both sophisticated and wry. Bellizeare’s brooding April reveals a great deal going on in her life in addition to finding herself pregnant.
Monique’s Cherise is another troubled character who is ambivalent about her choices, desires and decisions though guided by her unwavering faith. As Donna whose life is motivated by her desire to get out of town, Lewis is adult and goal-directed, more so than the other players. Clark’s coach is unwavering in her strict code which her team respects as well as looks up to her, as she has been where they are now.
Using all of Saunders’ setting including Donna’s shiny blue car, Blain-Cruz keeps the energy high and the tension building. Eubanks’ costume design wisely puts all the members of the team in different colors in the opening scenes so that we can get to know them before we see them all in the identical Lady Train uniforms. Adam Honoré’s lighting telegraphs the various times of day, and whether we are inside or outdoors. Palmer Hefferan’s sound design backs up the songs on the radio, the television replay of a famous game and the announcer and music at the championship tournament. Not only is Candrice Jones’ Flex a fascinating work it also presages an impressive career ahead of her.
Flex (through August 20, 2023)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse, 160 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission