Center stage: middle-class African Americans
Guess who’s coming to the beach barbecue this summer? Middle-class African Americans, that’s who.
In two new critically esteemed works, Lydia Diamond’s play “Stick Fly” and Colson Whitehead’s just-published semiautobiographical novel “Sag Harbor” (Doubleday), the focus is on middle-class blacks summering on, respectively, Martha’s Vineyard and rural Long Island. While both works address some of the perennial challenges of African American life, they also depict their characters basking in such fair-weather pleasures as hanging out with family, eating waffle cones, playing board games and schlepping across sand dunes.
Diamond’s comic drama, which is running through June 14 at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue, and Whitehead’s buoyant coming-of-age tale follow on the heels of Jill Nelson’s “Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.” Published in 2005, her book is a lyrical memoir-history of the author’s half-century love affair with the Oak Bluffs community, a longtime African American enclave off the picturesque Massachusetts coast.
As Americans of all colors reconsider the meanings and milieus of the African American experience in the Obama era, we may be witnessing a gradual sea change in the way that African American artists represent themselves and are perceived by others. In both “Stick Fly” and “Sag Harbor,” the characters intermittently analyze their language, relationships and socio-cultural heritage (or baggage) as African Americans. But what’s also striking about these works is that they present their well-educated, witty characters as matter-of-factly inhabiting a world of leisure and affluence, a very different way than many white Americans may be used to seeing black people portrayed in popular culture.
“Often, people who make decisions about what gets produced have only known black people as a service provider,” Diamond, 40, said in a phone interview last week. That’s partly why an educated, middle-class black family such as the Huxtables, when they first appeared on “The Cosby Show” a quarter-century ago, caught off-guard viewers who hadn’t imagined that such families existed, she suggested.
Like the Huxtables’ comfortably rambunctious Brooklyn home, what the communities of Oak Bluffs and Long Island’s Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills and Ninevah offer is a more neutral, less historically and symbolically loaded backdrop against which to examine their fictional characters. They are depicted as places where middle-class African Americans are in some ways more free to be themselves than they are in the rest of white-dominated American society.
As Nelson writes in her memoir of Oak Bluffs: “There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good as or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony. For the months of summer the weight of being race representative -- and all the political, emotional, and psychic burdens that come with demanding that an individual represent a nonexistent monolith -- was lifted. . . . Here, it was enough that you simply be yourself.”
“Sag Harbor,” which is set in the mid-1980s, elucidates not the chronicle of a people’s historic struggle, but simply the minutiae of its teenage protagonist Benji’s daily routines, shrewd reflections, sophomoric gibes and occasionally fumbling but earnest attempts at self-transformation.
“According to the world, we were the definition of a paradox: black boys with beach houses,” Whitehead writes. “A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it. It was simply who we were.”
To some, “Stick Fly” and “Sag Harbor” may appear to present a kind of alternative history of the Great American Summer Vacation. But among East Coast middle-class blacks, that history is well established.
“Even in college, I’d say, ‘I’m from Sag Harbor,’ people would be like, ‘I didn’t know black people went out there,’ ” Whitehead, 39, said last week in Los Angeles, where he appeared in the Aloud public conversation series at the downtown Central Library. “Meanwhile, for us it was the opposite. We didn’t know white people went out there. We thought all the white people who lived in East Hampton, Bridgehampton, were townies.”
Not only are the worlds of “Stick Fly” and “Sag Harbor” strikingly different from those usually glimpsed in mainstream movies and television, they’re also quite removed from the environments typically associated with some of the most illustrious African American artists. Viewed from the plush living-room set of “Stick Fly” or the weekender bungalows and fried-clam shacks of “Sag Harbor,” the gritty precincts of Spike Lee’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood or August Wilson’s Hill District(Pittsburgh) in Pittsburgh seem a world away. So do the hardships endured by the struggling characters (including slaves) who populate the fiction of the nation’s most celebrated African American writer, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
Diamond has said she believes that “America has a real comfort zone with seeing African Americans in certain ways,” usually either as historical figures revisiting past wrongs inflicted by white people, or in a contemporary urban setting where many of the same historic, race-based struggles still occur.
Changing the setting of a play or novel from the Mississippi Delta or Detroit to an idyllic island bluff doesn’t mean those struggles necessarily have ended, the Boston-based playwright maintains, but it can offer a different lens on the nature of those continuing struggles.
In “Stick Fly,” set in the present, the LeVay family’s summer home in Oak Bluffs testifies to the hard-earned progress of a clan as well as an entire ethnic group. Its walls and crannies are covered with African carvings and an original painting by the African American artist and writer Romare Bearden. The bookshelves include the Riverside Shakespeare and “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement. (John Iacovelli did the Matrix production’s evocative set design.)
In a program note, writer Carrie Hughes traces the African American history of Oak Bluffs to the late 1700s. The community swelled during World War II with African American “doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers and business people, as well as politicians and artists.”
In that rarefied milieu, “Stick Fly” shapes up less as a play about race per se than about the economic and social distance that separates the LeVay brothers, Kent (Chris Butler) and Flip (Jason Delane), and their successful doctor father ( John Wesley) from Kent’s working-class, hyper-intellectual, hyper-opinionated girlfriend, Taylor (Michole Briana White) and the family’s disgruntled young housekeeper (Tinashe Kajese), all of whom are African American.
“When I wrote the play, I knew I was writing a play about class,” said Diamond, who grew up in what she describes as a single-parent, “solidly lower-middle-class home.”
In fact, several of her play’s plot points turn on matters of class, education and/or gender. Subtly, “Stick Fly” demonstrates that privilege, like discrimination, wears many masks, and is often invisible to those who benefit from it -- even, or perhaps especially, if they themselves are the victims of some form of discrimination.
The nature of privilege also figures as a theme of “Sag Harbor.” Benji casually confesses to his youthful ignorance of some of the canonical heroes and cultural idols of African American history, such as W.E.B. DuBois. He’s aware at some level that his own more fortunate lifestyle was made possible by his ancestors’ sacrifices. But he’s also liberated by not being constantly consumed with that historical legacy.
Whitehead, author of the novels “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days” and “Apex Hides the Hurt” as well as a book of essays about his hometown, “The Colossus of New York,” said that “the hopes and dreams of my grandparents’ generation,” those African Americans who first started coming out to Sag Harbor, were obviously different from those of him and his childhood friends.
“Definitely they were part of this scene, a really new emergent black middle class. And for them to go out there was something that they were inventing. You know, they wanted it and they went for it, and no one’s going to tell them no.”
His parents, living through the civil rights era, also had their own, different perspectives and motivations, he said. “And then for our generation, [we would] sort of take their struggles for granted, playing with ' Star Wars’ figures in the dirt. Not aware of this whole history, just being the beneficiaries, the clueless beneficiaries.”
For Whitehead, Sag Harbor symbolized something of a refuge from his family’s life in New York City, where “I was a target for the police if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (Once, as a high school senior, he was taken to a police station in handcuffs after being falsely fingered as a robber.)
Not that Sag Harbor was an idyll. “If we were out of Sag Harbor we were out of our territories,” he said. “And you couldn’t just go strolling around, driving aimlessly around through the streets of East Hampton.”
Yet for Benji, Sag Harbor represents a world of dawning possibilities, in which worries over “keeping it real” and acting “authentic” can be allayed, the stereotype-filled “great narrative of black pathology” can be set aside (at least from Memorial Day to Labor Day) and it’s OK to like Siouxsie and the Banshees as well as Run-DMC.
“I probably would’ve had too much anxiety about being called ‘bourgie’ if I had written this book in the ‘90s,” Whitehead acknowledged. “Like I can’t reveal that I actually had a comfortable upbringing.”
Are we in a different place now? “No, I’m in a different place,” he said. “This is the way it went down, and I don’t care if you know that.”
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