Pre-Show Preparation, Questions for Discussion, and Activities

Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to introduce your students to Stick Fly and its intellectual origin, context, and themes, as well as to engage their imaginations and creativity before they see the production.

  1. Sticks, Flies, Families, Friction and Secrets.  At the dramatic heart of Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly—and at the dramatic heart of all great domestic or family dramas, from Aeschylus’ Orestian Trilogy to Ibsen’s Ghosts to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night to Wilson’s Fences—are the tensions and secrets that test, confound and fracture families and the individuals within them.  Families on stage, like those off stage, struggle with dysfunction in the form of personality and priority clashes, harbored resentments, and skeletons in the closets.

    • Ask your students if they can recall any fictional families, either on the stage (or in television or films) or on the page (fiction or non-fiction) who have been tested, confounded, or fractured because of conflicts and emerging skeletons from their ancestral closets.  What are the pervasive or common interpersonal problems that overwhelm these fictional families?
    • Ask your students if in the histories of their own families there have been instances of tension or conflict, or if secrets have threatened to tear the family fabric.  Was the family able to openly address and calm these difficulties?  If so, how?  What were the outcomes of these challenging situations?
    • Have your students consider a situation in their own family history (or in someone else’s familial experience) in which personality or priority clashes, harbored resentments or an unexpectedly exposed secret has suddenly created interpersonal discord.  Give them an opportunity to dramatize the conflict either as a dialogue between multiple characters or in a monologue in which one individual character gives their personal perspective of the controversy.  If appropriate, students may volunteer their scripts to be read aloud to the class (or scenes could be prepared for a staged reading performance) and discussed.

  1. Contextualizing the World of Stick Fly.  In Stick Fly, Diamond introduces us to the world of the LeVay family, a contemporary, upper-class, well-educated, highly accomplished, and economically privileged African-American family.  The play is set in the LeVay’s ample Martha’s Vineyard “cottage.”  Your students may not be aware of the fact that Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts is a traditional summer resort as well as a year-round haven for upper-class and upper-middle-class African Americans. 

Research
To prepare your students for Stick Fly and to deepen their level of understanding and appreciation of the complexity of contemporary African-American experience, have your students research, either in groups or individually, the history of Martha’s Vineyard and its inhabitants.  You might consider the following subjects for research:  Captain William Martin (b. 1829); Rebecca Amos & Nancy Michael; Randall Burton & Edgar Jones; John Saunders & Rt. Rev. (Bishop) John Burgess; Dorothy West; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. & Isabel Washington Powell; Shearer Cottage; Oak Bluffs; Chappaquiddick; and the African-American Heritage Trail History Project.  Avenues for research may include:

  • Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard:  African Americans at Home on an Island (New York:  Doubleday, 2005).
  • Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class (New York:  Harper Collins, 1999).
  • Stanley Nelson’s film A Place of Our Own (Oakland, California:  Firelight Media Inc., 2004) and its companion web site (www.pbs.org/independentlens/placeofourown/index.html)
  • Perry Garfinkel’s article on Oak Bluffs, “ZipUSA:  02557,” appearing in National Geographic (June 2003) (magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0306/feature8/)
  • The African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard’s web site (www.mvheritagetrail.org),

Presentation and Discussion
Have each student or group present her/his/their research to the class.  Following the presentations, ask your students to reflect upon their research process and discoveries.

  • Was this a history of which they were already aware? 
  • Were any of the names of people, places or organizations already familiar to them?  Ask them to explain why they think they were or were not familiar.
  • Was information on their research subjects readily available?
  • What was the nature of the resources they found?  Were they plentiful?  Scarce?  Detailed?  Vague?
  • Did their research yield any particularly surprising information?
  • Can they identify any interesting, compelling, challenging or confusing themes in the totality of their research?

  1. Staging African-American Experiences McCarter Theatre, in its mission to develop and produce new works for the stage, to support the next generation of playwrights, and to engage, educate and cultivate a broad range of audiences, has committed itself to presenting the broad and complex African-American experience on stage.  In the past six years alone, the following remarkable plays by both established and up-and-coming American playwrights have entertained, enthralled, provoked and challenged McCarter audiences:

    • Radio Golf by August Wilson(2006-2007 season)
    • The Brothers Size by Tarell McCraney (2006-2007)
    • Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson (2005-2006)
    • PolkCounty by Zora Neal Hurston and Dorothy Waring, adapted by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison (2004-2005)
    • Crowns: Portraits of Black Women and Their Church Hats by Regina Taylor (2002-2003)
    • Lackawanna Blues by Ruben Santiago Hudson (2001-2002)
    • Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith (2001-2002)

Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond joins these works that further define, explore, expose, and investigate the depth and breadth of the history and of contemporary lives of Black Americans of African ancestry.
To better appreciate Lydia Diamond’s unique perspective and contribution, and for purposes of comparison and discussion, have your students read one or more of the above plays before their attendance at Stick Fly.

Ask of the play(s) the following questions:

  • What makes the play and its world unique?
  • What are the issues and themes highlighted in the play?
  • What issues and themes in the play do you think are unique to the African-American experience? 
  • How does the play speak of or deal with issues of class and race? 
  • What aspects of the play do you specifically see as affirming and empowering for an African-American viewer/reader?
  • Are there aspects of the play that might challenge a non-African-American viewer? 
  • What themes or issues in the play, if any, do you think are universal or common to any race or class of peoples?What is the importance or significance of presenting many perspectives on the African-American experience?

  1. Observing Stick Fly as a PlaywrightThe Stick Fly student matinee is also the kick-off for McCarter Education’s Youth Ink! High School Playwriting Residency Program.  To prepare YI! student playwrights (and our entire student matinee audience) for analysis and discussion of the dramatic elements of Lydia Diamond’s play, provide a brief overview of the following essential principles of playwriting:

Action What a character wants; also often referred to as a character’s objective.  Characters have both immediate actions (in any given scene) and overarching actions (in the entire course of a play).

Conflict That which stands in the way of what a character wants; also referred to as an obstacle.  Conflicts come in two varieties:

External:  A conflict which comes from outside the character, either in the form of an inanimate object or another character.

Internal:  A conflict which comes from within the character, in that she or he wants more than one thing and therefore is blocked from both.

Ask your students to keep track of the actions and conflicts occurring in Stick Fly.  Have them consider as they experience the play:

  • What is each character’s action/want when the play begins?
  • What conflicts arise?  What keeps characters from getting what they want?
  • Do any of the characters suffer from an internal conflict?
  • Who gets what they want?
  • Whose action/want changes?  Why?
  • How and why does each character change, if at all, during the course of the play?
Following your Stick Fly attendance, utilize the above questions for a discussion of the dramatic content of the play

  1. A Theater Reviewer Prepares.  A theater critic or reviewer is essentially a “professional audience member,” whose job is to report the news, in detail, of a play’s production and performance through active and descriptive language for a target audience of readers (e.g., their peers, their community, or those interested in the Arts). To prepare your students to write an accurate, insightful and compelling theater review following their attendance at the East Coast premiere of Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, prime them for the task by discussing the three basic elements of a theatrical review:  reportage, analysis and judgment

    • Reportage is concerned with the basic information of the production, or the journalist’s “four w’s” (i.e., who, what, where, when), as well as the elements of production, which include the text, setting, costumes, lighting, sound, acting and directing ( Theater Reviewer’s Checklist).  When reporting upon these observable phenomena of production, the reviewer’s approach should be factual, descriptive and objective; any reference to quality or effectiveness should be reserved for the analysis section of the review.
    • With analysis the theater reviewer segues into the realm of the subjective and attempts to interpret the artistic choices made by the director and designers and the effectiveness of these choices; specific moments, ideas and images from the production are considered in the analysis.
    • Judgment involves the reviewer’s opinion as to whether the director’s and designers’ intentions were realized, and if their collaborative, artistic endeavor was ultimately a worthwhile one.  Theater reviewers always back up their opinions with reasons, evidence and details. 

Remind your students that the goal of a theater reviewer is “to see accurately, describe fully, think clearly, and then (and only then) to judge fairly the merits of the work” (Thaiss and Davis, Writing for the Theatre, 1999).  Proper analytical preparation before the show and active listening and viewing during will result in the effective writing and crafting of their reviews.