‘Stick Fly’ Theatre Concepts play peers into complex lives of privileged African-American family

Founding artistic director Art Gilliard of Art Forms and Theatre Concepts is bringing “Stick Fly” to the stage as part of the MOJA Festival.

Twenty years ago, Art Forms and Theatre Concepts began as a theater company with a mission to inspire, educate and involve the local community in its productions.

The same year of its founding, the company was incorporated as an arts nonprofit, receiving grants from the city of Charleston, the South Carolina Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation to conduct workshops and directing classes for community members and area students.

Under the direction of founding artistic director Art Gilliard, the company also produces roughly four plays a year, focusing on material from respected playwrights that examine the African-American experience.

In addition to its 20th anniversary, the nonprofit’s production of Lydia Diamond’s award-winning play “Stick Fly” also marks its 20th performing season in the MOJA Arts Festival.

“Stick Fly” tells the story of the LeVays, an affluent African-American family whose sons, Kent and Flip, arrive at the family home on Martha’s Vineyard to introduce their girlfriends, Kimber and Taylor, to their father, Joe, and the teenage daughter of the family’s longtime housekeeper, Cheryl.

Tensions rise as Taylor, an academic whose absent father left lasting conflicts, grapples with the family’s wealthy lifestyle and confers with Kimber, a self-described WASP, on her position as an inner-city schoolteacher. The play confronts topics including race, class, privilege and family, cast in both light and dark shades, as it expands the scope of American life within times of societal transition.

Charleston Scene caught up with Gilliard as he prepared for the show’s opening this weekend at the Dock Street Theatre.

Q: How did you hear about “Stick Fly,” and what drove your dedication to create a production of it?

A: It was well received on Broadway, and I thought it told a beautiful story about a segment of the African-American community that we don’t hear a lot about, showcasing their successes and real commitment to family and some of the real challenges they faced preserving that family and lifestyle. Though the LeVays are a regular family by their standards, they, too, have flaws, and it is presented and captured by Lydia Diamond into some wonderful characters dealing with some real-life issues.

Another point for me was that there are a number of people locally who have homes or visit Martha’s Vineyard regularly, and it was suggested by some of them that I do the play after they saw Condola Rashard play Cheryl in the play on Broadway.

Q: “Stick Fly” addresses some very complex and sensitive issues, ranging from race to class to gender roles to illegitimacy and beyond. Given how heavy these roles are to carry, how difficult was it to cast this play, and what was your approach with directing these touchy, yet so critically important scenes?

A: Since the intent is always to show another slice of the African-American experience and how it, as well as life and times, is evolving, it was challenging casting the show because the author has so clearly defined the characters who dealt with issues in 2005, which are still evolving today. Privilege is privilege. Some inherit it and some earn it, but effort is required to maintain it. And I found that the Stanislavski method was the best approach in directing these touchy, yet critically important scenes, because it requires you to be in the moment ... to be right now. ... I am thoroughly enjoying the cast and crew of this production because they have really formed a tight ensemble in a short time for a short run, but they are beautiful to work with.

One thing unique about “Stick Fly” is that it examines the story of an upper-middle class African-American family in a way that is rarely seen. As the middle and upper-middle class continues to diversify and cultures, races and ethnicities once divided are merging at higher rates both in the workplace and at home, how important is it for art to keep up with its presentation of race and class in the modern day? In other words, does art have a duty to educate real life during times of social transition?

I definitely see art, or an individual’s perception of art, as a means of shedding light on and preserving the changes that are occurring in our society. ... Here, Diamond addresses those issues head on as it relates to diversity, cultures, races and ethnicities and how they are merging at higher rates all around us. (I) definitely wanted to address the broader issues “Stick Fly” presents, and the LeVays was a great vehicle for a larger, and in our community, important discussion.

Q: What has the production process been like?

A: The production has been very challenging to mount because the characters are so strong and the issues they are dealing with are so current that the actors have to have a bit of versatility to underscore the many moods expressed. Fortunately, the Lowcountry has some wonderful and talented actors, and the experience level is improving more and more.

Q: What can audiences expect from this play? What should they be ready for when they sit down?

A: I think the audience should expect to see fine acting, I hope good direction, a beautiful set by Ralph Roscognos and the revealing of a simple, but complex story written by a great playwright, Lydia R. Diamond.

“Stick Fly” will have performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday at the Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. Tickets are $26/adults; $21/seniors and students with ID. A gala from 6:45 to curtain call will be held on opening night. Tickets for the opening reception and performance are $50; all tickets may be purchased at www.MOJAfestival.com or at the Dock Street box office. Go to the MOJA website or call the Dock Street box office at (843) 577-7183 for additional information.