Playwright Lydia Diamond, whose latest play was produced by Alicia Keys, told students Friday that, in theater, it’s not just about being on Broadway.
Speaking to a crowd of students and faculty, Diamond discussed her experience in theater, from her time as an undergraduate at Northwestern University to last fall’s Broadway debut of her play “Stick Fly.” Produced by Keys, the play reflects Diamond’s career-long drive to represent a wide range of black voices and characters on stage.
The free, hour-long conversation kicked off this semester’s Lunch with the Arts Initiative series, which revolves around question-and-answer sessions with experts in the arts.
“Stick Fly” takes place during a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard, where the LeVays’ two adult sons independently bring their girlfriends to meet their parents. What results over the two-and-a-half hour play is both wickedly funny and passionately poignant, presenting sibling rivalry, class divisions, and differing opinions in a way that transcends race and generation.
As a young adult, Diamond said she was continuously dismayed and angered by what she observed as the lack of smart, complex roles written for African-Americans. She didn’t see herself in the performances she watched or on the pages of the plays she studied.
“At first I thought I would be an actor, but I began writing roles that I wanted to play,” Diamond said. According to producer Keys on the play’s website, “Stick Fly” is a play that “is so beautifully written and portrays Black America in a way that we don’t often get to see in entertainment.”
The prolific writer spoke candidly about her modest beginnings back in Chicago, staging plays in a vegetarian restaurant.
“I’m really allergic to the idea of a ‘career trajectory’ and the idea that certain stages or reviews legitimize you,” she said.
After introducing herself, Diamond involved the audience in a discussion, fueled by both responses to her presentation and to the personal goals of audience members.
Director of Miller Theatre Melissa Smey reinstituted the Lunch with the Arts Initiative this academic year and said she feels very passionate about its mission: “to connect Columbians to each other and to the outside world at the same time.”
The Lunch with Arts Initiative events are usually held around a table in order to set an intimate, casual tone, but the dialogue with Diamond was held in Miller Theatre to accommodate the event’s large turnout.
However, the spacious setting did not detract from the conversational feel of the session; over sandwiches, attendees asked each other follow-up questions and many drew on their personal or academic experiences to fuel the dialogue.
“I think this is a very necessary conversation,” said Kalima Desuze, adjunct lecturer at the Columbia School of Social Work.
The event attracted all kinds of students, not just future playwrights. “What I liked was that most of the people in the audience weren’t theater people,” Tiffany Vega, SoA ’12, said.
Though the coming months’ guests have yet to be chosen, Smey said that she welcomes suggestions.