It’s the summer before the 1997-98 basketball season and the Lady Train, a standout high school team from a remote warren of southeast Arkansas, is in pursuit of a state title. But, as with any path to glory, there are speed bumps — bumps being the operative word.
When the lights go up on playwright Candrice Jones’ Flex, there’s something unusual about the girls of the Lady Train as they run suicide drills. They all (squint) seem to be somewhere — no, uniformly — between their second and third trimesters of pregnancy. But they don’t move like they’re encumbered by pregnancy.
Ah! What a delightful and unexpected show of solidarity. Only one member of the Lady Train, April Jenkins (Brittany Bellizeare), is truly carrying. Her teammates have rallied around her by donning simulator bellies. They’re also hoping to convince their decorated coach, Francine Pace, to allow April to play as long as she is able. Pace is dubious and prone to caution regarding April’s health. And then there’s the matter of propriety, because, honey, this is the South and even though everyone knows people sin on Saturday and pray it off Sunday, you can’t just go around flaunting it like you’re not ashamed. That’s not how things work. There are pretenses to uphold!
Actor Christiana Clark’s take on Pace seems almost uncanny, serving up a firm-but-affirming Dawn Staley aura while looking as though she just stepped out of an ad for Easy Spirit or SportsCenter’s Top 10.
The girls from the aptly-named “Plainnole,” Arkansas, are tough. That’s especially true for Starra (Erica Matthews), the Lady Train’s scrappy, malapert point guard. Starra developed resilient ankles playing on a dirt half court that she, her twin sister Shamon, and their parents stamped and dribbled into existence years earlier. Its goal sits above a set of weathered barn doors.
As team captain and starting point guard, a teammate’s pregnancy is a speed bump Starra has encountered in previous seasons, and she has grown weary of it. A player gets knocked up, Coach benches her, and there goes the season. “Every year we lose teammates to a baby,” Starra grumbles.
The team is full of seniors, and if they have any chance of escaping their rural community, something will have to change. Actually, a lot has to change. April may have to overcome pregnancy, but Starra has to overcome her ego and her tendencies toward petty sabotage. There’s more than a little bit of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in Starra — she scarcely comes across a shot she won’t attempt, no matter how compromised. She’s not a fan of Coach Pace’s egalitarian flex play, which relies on quick, relentless, unselfish passing and every player having the versatility to make an open shot from anywhere.
Under the guidance of Lileana Blain-Cruz, Lincoln Center Theater’s resident director, (who scored a Tony nomination for Thornton Wilder’s disaster comedy The Skin Of Our Teeth), Flex’s jokes work in time with the quick-paced choreography that keeps the play moving toward the state championship game. The squeaks of sneakers and the swish of layups are impressively rhythmic.
Theater that portrays sports settings often poses funky challenges. For instance, the typical rectangular stage dimensions are a disadvantage for baseball stories. Rather than fighting the relative shallowness of a stage, Take Me Out designer David Rockwell relied on an impressionistic, painted re-creation of a baseball diamond and an outfield as seen from an upper deck seat to serve as the backdrop for game action. It lent a dreamy Sunday in the Park Georges Seurat quality to a story in which men spend a lot of time scratching and showering and yammering away at their lockers.
Flex‘s playwright has wisely specified that the work be staged in the round. It makes for an open, natural half-court surrounded by a crowd of spectators. This also allows for an appreciation of the way a play can materialize, dissolve, and then reconstitute on the floor. It’s deceptively nimble translation work.
The scenic design by Matt Saunders is relatively simple. Save for the show’s major set piece, a Chrysler convertible that doubles as a reproductive freedom chariot. The closest abortion clinic is in Mississippi, and so the girls pile in, along with all the bees in their various bonnets: Starra and her anxieties about being upstaged, Cherise (Ciara Monique) and Donna (Renita Lewis) worrying over their closeted romance and how it conflicts with Cherise’s role as a newly minted youth minister, and April, carrying not just a fetus, but also a secret shame.
In the midst of a dangerous present-day moral panic over queer people, worsening Black maternal mortality rates, and Arkansas residents with unwanted pregnancies being forced to travel out of state to receive health care, the issues that preoccupy Flex are regrettably timely. But the charm and dynamic performances of the ensemble, and the studied flow of their passing, dribbling, and shooting give this production its moxie.
There’s another relevant contemporary backdrop against which Flex stands, too. New York theater is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and in need of government intervention. Jones developed Flex with the Humana Festival of New American Plays, an important incubator for drama which relies on funding from private donors and the National Endowment for the Arts. This year’s festival was canceled, and its long-term fate — much like that of the Lady Train’s athletes — remains ambiguous.
Flex runs at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse stage through Aug. 20.