A circa 1997 drama about a girls’ high school basketball team from Plainnole, Arkansas whose members are hoping to go pro after graduation, Flex looks at the stress young Black women deal with on and off the court. Told in the structure of a four-quarter basketball game, the play had its world premiere at Theatrical Outfit in 2022, co-produced by TheatreSquared, and began an off-Broadway run with Lincoln Center Theater.
Now in previews, opening night is on July 20, and Flex runs through August 20 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. It’s directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, a Tony Award nominee for 2022’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and stars Erica Matthews as lead character Starra Jones.
In the small town that Flex where playwright Candrice Jones grew up — Dermott, Arkansas — basketball reigned supreme. She played the sport in high school and later in college, and everyone around always knew which teams were winning and which teams weren’t. It was a bit like the film and television series Friday Night Lights, only with hoops instead of touchdowns, and Jones considered herself fortunate to be active at a time when women’s basketball was getting deserved attention.
Yet when she ran into a high school rival in 2002 while attending the University of Arkansas at Monticello, she learned a harsh truth. Said colleague mentioned that Jones’ former high school team wasn’t more successful because someone on the squad got pregnant every season and had to quit. Jones didn’t want to believe it but soon realized it was true. The knowledge stayed with her and eventually led her to write Flex in 2016.
Developed at the 2020 Humana Festival of New American Plays, Flex had a Zoom reading later that year during Covid-19, coordinated by Theatrical Outfit with an all-Atlanta cast and directed by Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
Soon afterward, the play was staged as part of Theatrical Outfit’s Made in Atlanta program for the 2021-2022 season. Made in Atlanta was launched by Artistic Director Matt Torney and Associate Artistic Director Addae Moon, and Flex is the first play originating at Theatrical Outfit that has made it to off-Broadway. “It’s rare for a show to come directly from a Southern theater and go straight to New York quite soon afterward,” says Moon. “It shows, to me, how the landscape is changing in terms of new play development, and people are realizing that there is something very important about the specificity of place and how that impacts storytelling.”
Flex was a natural fit for Theatrical Outfit, says Torney. “One of our goals for [Made in Atlanta] is that we wanted to launch this program with a play that we felt was very much of the South and spoke to audiences here,” he says. “Candrice was adamant that the premiere had to be at a Southern theater because of some of the religious themes of the play. She wanted a place where people from Arkansas could see themselves on stage and feel welcome in the theater.”
With all parties pleased with the reception, Theatrical Outfit offered Jones a world premiere, and she gladly accepted, impressed by Torney’s vision. It made perfect sense to her that the sensibilities of the play, especially the languages and nuances of a young Black woman, would land in a Black Southern city such as Atlanta. Seeing it on stage after years of development was rewarding.
“Having an Atlanta audience embrace the play allowed me time to see it and think about what I could do in the next production but also reassured me this
play had a home,” she says. “When you take a Southern play and stage it in the South, you are staging it in its roots, and that makes a huge difference on the actors and the directors — it gives a level of comfort.”
Jones found out about the off-Broadway run late in 2022, and it all came together earlier this year. In moving the play to off-Broadway, she had to make some subtle changes, including the climactic overtime scene, which Jones said had some lyricism and heightened poetry but admitted was somewhat “cheating the play.”
Some of Jones’ other work includes Re-Imagining the Self, a 10-minute play presented by Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and the Weekend Theater. She also wrote the Arkansas set Crackbaby, which received a Wasserstein Prize Nomination. Flex is her New York debut.
According to Jones, Flex is an everyman play with some social history and a universal message. “Basketball may not be a sport that everyone plays, but it is a sport everyone can relate to, as well as having a dream and wanting to go hard with that dream and making mistakes along the way, which is what most of the characters do. Starra is a kid with a dream given to her by her mother, and she has to figure out a way to realize it — on her own terms. That is what the play is really about.”
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog, Douglas.