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The World Of The Black Bourgeoisie

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Aired 2/24/11

A wealthy African American family gathers at their vacation home in Martha's Vineyard and like at any family gathering, drama and comedy ensue. We'll talk with Lydia Diamond about her play "Stick Fly" opening at Mo'olelo. A professor of black studies joins the conversation to discuss issues facing the black bourgeoisie in America.

Mo`olelo's production is "Stick Fly" opens tonight and runs through March 20th at The 10th Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego.
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Above: Mo`olelo's production is "Stick Fly" opens tonight and runs through March 20th at The 10th Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego.

A wealthy African American family gathers at their vacation home in Martha's Vineyard and like at any family gathering, drama and comedy ensue. We'll talk with Lydia Diamond about her play "Stick Fly" opening at Mo'olelo. A professor of black studies joins the conversation to discuss issues facing the black bourgeoisie in America.

Guests:

Lydia Diamond joins us by phone from Boston. She wrote the play "Stick Fly."

Starla Lewis is a professor of black studies at San Diego's Mesa College.

Lorene Chesley is playing the role of Taylor n Mo`olelo's production of "Stick Fly." She is an alumni of UCSD.

Hassan El-Amin is playing the role of Joe LeVay in Mo'olelo's production of "Stick Fly." He is the Artistic Director of Common Ground Theatre in San Diego.

Mo`olelo's production is "Stick Fly" opens tonight and runs through March 20th at The 10th Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego. On March 3rd, Professor Lewis will facilitate a post-show talk on "Race, Class, Identity and the Black Bourgeoisie."

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. During black history month, we honor the struggle of African Americans to gain rights and their rightful place in society. But there are still parts of that struggle that remain hidden. A play being presented by Mo'Olelo Performing Arts introduces us to the LaVeys, a wealthy, successful black family wrestling with unresolved issues of class, race, and [CHECK AUDIO] the play and called steak fly. I'd like to welcome my guest, first of all, playwright Lydia diamond, she joins us by phone from Boston. Good morning, Lydia.

DIAMOND: Oh, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And WITH ME in studio, Starla Lewis, professor of Black Studies at San Diego's Mesa College. Good morning, Starla.

LEWIS: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: We're gonna have a reading from the play a little bit later, and we will be joined by a couple of actors at that time. Lydia, tell us about the LeVays, the family at the center of Stick Fly.

DIAMOND: Well, the LeVays are a fictional family. When I wrote the play, I knew that I wanted to write a play that sort of in a light handed way, even funny way, sort of explored the things that all of my work does, which is my own continued confusion and disbelief around how difficult it is for us to talk about race. And even harder than to navigate a class. So I had these characters in my head for a long time. And I knew that the presence needed to be on a place where affluent black families had a legitimate history. So that was Martha's vineyard. I thought FOR A BIT about Hilton Head, which could have worked to, but Martha's Vineyard has such a specific and long history with African Americans. So the LeVays are -- the patriarch of the family is a neurosurgeon, one of the few black neurosurgeons in America. He has two sons. Of they're having their summer vacation, one of the sons, the younger son is bringing his fiance home to meet the family, that's tailor. And another son is bringing home a girlfriend to meet the family. And I guess it's not giving it away if I say that she's white. 'Cause it's on all the posters. There's a white girl. And also in the house is the family's -- the daughter of the family's live in maid. Her name is Cheryl. Her mother is sick and unavailable for the summer. And so Cheryl has stepped in to fulfill her mother's duties.

CAVANAUGH: And is it a comedy drama of manners and of various identities? Is that fair to say?

DIAMOND: I think that's fair to say. But it might even imply a bit more -- a certain stodginess that it doesn't have. It is a comedy of manners in that I endeavor to write a well structured, quote, well made play. So it's like the comfort food of plays in that it takes place in a bifurcated house, and in the kitchen, in the living room, and over a certain amount of time. Over the course of a weekend. And while the subject matter can be serious, the fun is actually watching the family dynamics and the way these people dance around each other. There's a little love triangle kind of thing happening. And those subtle sort of human dynamics are the things, I think, that makes the play pop.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, do you think our society generally thinks of "the black experience" in this country in a limited way?

DIAMOND: I do think that there's a sort of monolith. And I think also that we do it to ourselves too. I know that as a person, an African American woman, I remember particularly in junior high school and high school and even college sort of prove -- having to do this dance of proving my blackness. And what it means to be black, and from a small town in the Midwest, and what it means to be black and from a mostly white town in Amherst Massachusetts. Or to be the black girl in the theatre department. And so yes, there is certainly this sort of monolithic kind of notion that there is a black America. But I think what's interesting is that though we all know that we're diverse, we do have the same societal challenges and, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And plus.

DIAMOND: Yes. Thank you. That's what I was trying to say.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with playwright Lydia diamond. She is the author of the black Stick Fly, which is opening tonight, the Mo'olelo production of it is opening at the 10th Avenue Theater Downtown in San Diego. And also here, Starla Lewis, professor of Black Studies here at San Diego's Mesa College. Now, doctor Lewis, what are some of the characteristics of the black bourgeois see that you see in this play?

LEWIS: Well, I think that the black bourgeois see, like the white bourgeoisie, is just taking on the very system of the society that they live in. Acquisition of wealth, acquisition of material possessions, status through education, status through money, status through who you know. And particularly the black bourgeoisie, looking at your ancestral heritage, were your people free, were they slaves, when were they free, were they connected to the master and the plantation, were they not, etc. Etc.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you have said that there is something of a shock factor that a black family might go through being wealthy, being in that upper strata of income. Tell us about that. Of.

LEWIS: A shock factor?

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

LEWIS: Well, I think it's more of an emulation factor. You look and you see what is portrayed in society as successful, and you want that. And so sometimes it distances you from even your immediate relatives. So that can be kind of shocking. But I think most of all it's about trying to find who you are in a society that doesn't prepare you to know who you are, through the educational system or any other major institution.

CAVANAUGH: Lydia, what inspired you to write this play?

DIAMOND: I was working with another play. I was working on a play called Voyeur de Venus, that was a really tragic and really emotionally trying process. And I decided to sort of give myself a break and write a play while I was writing this other one that I could really enjoy writing and actually have some belly laughs as I was writing it.

CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting.

DIAMOND: I --

CAVANAUGH: And yet you're exploring such really delicate territory here.

DIAMOND: Absolutely. And I wanted to add to something that the doctor just said which is about that sort of notion of -- oh, how did you put it? Of us sort of appropriating the ideas of the popular cultures.

CAVANAUGH: Emulating.

DIAMOND: Emulating for wealth. I think what's also interesting with Stick Fly is because this family has had generations of feeling comfortable within their own elitism, there's also a sort of added kind of not even identifying with upper class new bourgeoisie who are trying to find their footing in that way, but actually functioning in a world that doesn't know that these people exist.

CAVANAUGH: So basically what you're saying to us, Lydia, is that this family has to deal with just about all the things that a white bourgeoisie family, wealthy bourgeoisie family would have to deal with, plus -- plus these other elements that come from their own particular experience in America.

DIAMOND: I think that'd be fair to say, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Tell you what, we're gonna have a reading from this play. So let's leave it there and go into one of our pledge drive breaks. And when we return, we'll continue talking about Stick Fly, which is opening tonight at the Mo`Olelo production at the tenth avenue theatre in downtown San Diego. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we continue our discussion now about a play opening Mo'olelo's production of Stick Fly, it begins tonight at the 10th Avenue theatre. And joining me are playwright, Lydia Diamond, Starla Lewis -- is professor of Black Studies at Mesa College, she is not the playwright, and joining us now, two new guests, actor Lorene Chesley, she is playing the role of tailor, and Hassan El-Amin is playing the role of Joe LeVay. We'll be hearing them in just a few minutes, but I do wanna talk -- I want to ask you, Dr. Lewis, we're talking about this play, and we're talking about the black bourgeoisie, and we're talking about the fact that this aspect of black life, black culture in America is rarely seen in any kind of mass media situation. And I -- and I know that you study race and class, and do you see a lot of denial among black Americans who reach a certain level of wealth? Can you talk a little bit about that?

LEWIS: Well, actually, I think it's because black people like white people are bombarded with stereotypes. And a lot of African American people accept those stereotypes as true in the same way that European American people accept those stereotypes as true. And so to talk about the black bourgeoisie is to have to first acknowledge their existence. So yes, there is the denial. Because if we don't see it, we don't really know it's there. In the same way that often the black bourgeoisie denies the existence of other black people.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So in the way it's sort of, like, let's see mainstream white culture would like to look at all black people in one way. Even in black culture, there's a certain sense of denial that there's different stratas, economic stratas and different levels of wealth and accomplishment within the black community.

LEWIS: Well, are my favorite example would be the sitcom rose an. Rarely did you ever see white middle America working class. You always saw the white bourgeoisie. Women in pearls, you know, with people vacuuming their houses. And so that type exists for white people in the same way that the low income welfare project family exists as a stereotype for black people.

CAVANAUGH: What did the Cosby show, though, introduce the whole concept of the wealthy, middle class black family?

LEWIS: I think it brought a dimension that was so important, a dimension of realism. You know, my doctor has five kids, he's married to a lawyer, so for me, I was able to embrace it immediately. But as I heard European Americans say, that's really not a typical black family, I also heard African Americans say well, black people don't really live like that. So we don't even know the diversity that exists within all the stratums of our society.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Lydia, within the play, Stick Fly, your play, as people converse during the course of the play, the idea of race and navigating the world around this race course of race that we have in this society, it permeates almost every discussion this family has. How -- this is a mechanism of your play more than an actual aspect of reality, or am I wrong in that?

DIAMOND: No, I don't think you're wrong. Obviously you're not wrong. But I actually think that when you write a play, you're actually only showing certain bits of conversations that happened over a longer period of time. So I don't think that the play is intended to create the illusion that all these people do is walk around the house and talk about class and race. It does, however, remind me of Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas holidays spent with family where the topic of politics and identity and race come up because we are so happy to be with each other and be able to sort of deconstruct the lives that we live in where we don't always have people like us, and when I say people like us, I don't come from the black bourgeoisie, I come from working class, upper middle class people, to sort of have a safe harbor, to have those conversations and work through that. I think it's interesting that because we've been thirsting for stories that have -- that show a different part of African American life, we kind of latch onto that black bourgeoisie aspect of the play, but there's a lot about relationships that's so much about father son relationships, familial relationships, female/male dynamics and personal identity around work. So I get the -- I'm just nervous because I don't want it to sound as though this is a family that just walks around deconstructing race all the time.

CAVANAUGH: I think you put it very well.

DIAMOND: Okay.

CAVANAUGH: We're about to hear a scene from the play. But before we do, Lorraine Chesley, you're playing the role of Taylor in this fly of Stick Fly. Tell us a little bit about your character.

CHESLEY: Taylor is the fiancee of Spoon Kent. And she actually comes form her father is Dr. James Bradley Scott, and he's a famous intellectual. But he did not give her any of the financial -- he didn't have any of the financial -- any of that kind of part of him, and he wasn't really emotionally there. So she feels really abandoned of so she comes from a place like that. She was raised by a single parent. And so she's got a lot going on. She's got a lot of issues in terms of, you know, feeling like being deserted. And so she kinda goes through this, and she's got a lot of issues with white people and white women taking what she feels is owed to her and not feeling seen or being heard, and just trying to find her place. So we kind of see her journey throughout.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And Hassan El-Amin, the patriarch of the family, right? Joe LeVay?

EL-AMIN: Yes, absolutely. Joe LeVay.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about him.

EL-AMIN: Well, he's a very intellectual individual, a loving, strong handed kind of father. You know, has been there, provides for his family. He's one of that two percent of African Americans who have made it as far as being a neurosurgeon is concerned. He enjoys life, the finer things, enjoys his family, so he's kind of that strong father figure.

CAVANAUGH: Well, are the two of you are gonna be gracious enough to do a reading from the play for us right now. So I'll let you did do that. This is a reading from Stick Fly.

(READING FROM SCRIPT)

CHESLEY: Does the idea of your family getting diluted piss you off a little?

EL-AMIN: Diluted?

CHESLEY: Yeah.

EL-AMIN: Clearly there's a little cream in your coffee. Sweetie, if it wasn't for all that dilution, you think my wise people would have this house? Don't you know that most of the black folks got something now got it 'cause somewhere along the way somebody got raped in a kitchen. Don't look at me like that. Yeah, we brought all the good stuff, spirituality, fortitude, knowledge. Your dad wrote about that from the inner passage to the inner city.

CHESLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, dad wrote about it. Whatever. When I try to point out the inequities I'm told that I'm too angry or crazy or it just isn't there.

EL-AMIN: But you know it's there, so --

CHESLEY: It's so perfectly set up to make us feel inferior.

EL-AMIN: You're letting people mess with your mind, little girl. Don't give anybody that much power. Nobody can make you feel inferior. I've been the heard of this house, coming to this island for the past 40 years, I've put in hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovation, but there'll never be a sign out front that reads LeVay, this will always be the Whitcomb house. And I'll always be the guy lucky enough to marry into the Whitcomb dynasty, Which for a long time was a dynasty built on very little liquid money.

CHESLEY: Then you do understand.

EL-AMIN: I understand that you can be angry and not crazy. Just be a little more constructive.

CHESLEY: I just wish people would see it like I do am.

EL-AMIN: Your daddy saw it.

CHESLEY: So what? He tells the white people, you ain't crap! They give him an award. You have still ain't crap! Another award. Meanwhile, what changes?

EL-AMIN: Are you as hard on your self as you are on your dad?

CHESLEY: Probably.

EL-AMIN: Your dad officered you.

CHESLEY: I'm not sure of that. Can I see your book? Read this.

EL-AMIN: James Bradley Scott lives in Cambridge Mass where he's a professor of --

CHESLEY: No, this.

EL-AMIN: With his wife, his two kids, their dog, Munchy, two turtles, and a gold fish.

CHESLEY: Isn't that cute? It's on all of his books. Now, read this.

EL-AMIN: Dedicated to Shandi, Jackson, and Briana, we don't need to --

CHESLEY: Finish it.

EL-AMIN: My heart, my pride, my purpose.

CHESLEY: I don't know what to do with that.

EL-AMIN: That doesn't mean that he didn't love you.

CHESLEY: Please, in his funeral program, I was almost acknowledged. Doctor James Bradley Scott is survived by his wife Briana, daughter Shandi, son Jackson, and a child from a previous marriage.

EL-AMIN: But you know he didn't write that.

CHESLEY: He set the tone.

EL-AMIN: He loved you. We're programmed to love our children. Breakfast?

CAVANAUGH: That was a scene from Stick Fly, performed by our two actors in studio, Hassan El-Amin, and Lorene Chesley. Thank you so much for that.

EL-AMIN: Thank you.

CHESLEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Lydia, we're pushing up against the clock here, and I just wonder, what kinds of discussion would you like to see come out of this play? Lydia are you with us.

DIAMOND: Oh, yes, I accidentally talked offer you, and good that you have mechanisms for me not to do that. I just wanted to tell the actors that I so enjoyed thirds requirement reading. I'm looking forward to meeting you guys.

CHESLEY: I'm looking forward to meeting you.

EL-AMIN:

DIAMOND: Your question was what can people take from it?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, what would you like people to take as they walk away from this theater?

DIAMOND: I never try to put that on an audience. I hope very much that they enjoy it, that they're entertained, maybe shaken up enough to kind of question some of their own thing, and that they talk about it on the ride home, and over breakfast the next morning. But mostly I just want people to have a satisfying evening in the theatre. And you know, listening to these actors, obviously they will.

CAVANAUGH: Great. Well, I want to thank you, Lydia diamond, thanks for speaking with us.

DIAMOND: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We look forward to you coming to San Diego.

DIAMOND: Looking forward to being there am.

CAVANAUGH: Starla Lewis, thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And our two actors hark San El-Amin, and Lorene can Chesley thank you again.

DIAMOND: Yeah, thank you for having me.

EL-AMIN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone, Mo'olelo's production of Stick Fly begins previews tonight. It opens March 6th, it runs through March 29th at the 10th Avenue Theatre in Downtown San Diego. On March 3rd, professor Starla Lewis will facilitate a post-show talk on race, class, identity, and the black bourgeoisie, you're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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