'Flex' review — a riveting play right up to the final buzzer
Read our four-star review of Flex, a play about a high school girls' basketball team in Arkansas, now at Lincoln Center Theater through August 20.
In basketball, a flex is a continuity offense that uses a series of screens and passes between players to allow the shooter to make a jump shot or a layup. It requires a team effort.
Candrice Jones’s Flex at Lincoln Center Theater follows the drama on and off the court as a high school girls' basketball team grapples with the challenges of being Black and female in rural Arkansas.
The year is 1997, and the Lady Train team in Plainnole, Arkansas, is set on success. It’s the inaugural year of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the five fiery players believe the WNBA is their ticket out of the dusty dirt courts. There are just a few obstacles to getting to the sleek, hardwood courts of the professional basketball league. For one, April Jenkins (Brittany Bellizeare) is pregnant.
Team captain Starra Jones (Erica Matthews), motivated by her late mother’s basketball success, is determined to have the full team play at the state championship game. She holds a “pregnancy practice,” the teammates sport fake belly bump suits lifted from the school’s home economics classroom while running drills. The goal is to prove to the team’s coach that April can participate. It doesn’t work.
But more stands between the girls and the state championship game: a ruthless act of betrayal, a burgeoning romance, an identity crisis, and an inflated ego. The team’s journey to forgive one another and build trust is as gripping as a close basketball game.
One of the play’s strongest scenes takes place at a sleepover. Sidney Brown (Tamera Tomakili) reads from a pornographic magazine and demonstrates how to put condoms onto fruits and vegetables to a hilarious effect. The slumber party turns sour when tensions rise and secrets spill. Bellizeare breaks down in a tearful, moving monologue.
Like a good basketball coach, Lileana Blain-Cruz navigates the lawless energy of teenagers from giddiness to hysterics through her skillful direction. And the play’s coach, aptly named Coach Francine Pace (Christina Clark), keeps the action on pace. She leads with a sternness that both frightens and activates the young players.
The team is stacked with star players who deliver winning performances. There’s lots of running, jumping, and shooting hoops, and the cast plays the game effortlessly. Rounding out the Lady Train is the levelheaded Donna Cunningham (Renita Lewis) and the devout Cherise Howard (Ciara Monique), who provides a moral compass for the team.
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater transforms from a dusty court into a sporting arena bursting with energy with Matt Saunders’s set. There’s also an onstage car that stagehands dressed as referees swiftly disassemble during scene transitions to applause.
The biggest applause comes when the team loudly shouts, “We’re big, b-i-g, bad, b-a-d, and we’re boss, b-o-s-s!” to kick off the big game. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the play-turned-game goes too far into overtime. But Flex is an action-filled play that energizes the audience, who cheer on the Lady Train with hometown team enthusiasm.
Photo credit: The cast of Flex. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)
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