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Candrice Jones' new play FLEX explores the challenges of the game and life for Black teens
In the heat of competition, an athlete may feel as if everything depends on what she does. If she can just make one more basket or block one more shot—or, if she doesn't complete the pass or stick the landing—it could impact not only the outcome of the game, but the rest of her life. In Candrice Jones' kinetic FLEX, now running (and jumping and shooting) at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, that sense of drama is palpable. Set in 1998, a year after the launch of the WNBA, it centers on a group of young Black women in a small Arkansas town, all talented high school basketball players trying to make it to the state championships in their final season and anticipating, or dreading, what lies ahead. A college scholarship? A pro spot? A traditional family life in their hometown or a career that takes them around the world?
Playwright Jones didn't have to imagine what it would be like to be in her characters' sneakers: she was a small-town teen baller herself. "When I graduated from high school, I didn't apply to college. I went and worked at the rug factory my mom worked in all my life," she says. "And then I figured out I was really bad at that job. So, I went to college and played basketball and majored in English, because that's what I was good at." It was a wise decision: that factory, says Jones, "no longer exists."
While Jones is a lifelong creative writer, she didn't become interested in working in theatre until college. In fact, up until that point, she had never even seen a fully staged play. That soon changed. "I was attending the University of Arkansas at Monticello; my brother was attending an HBCU about an hour away," she says. When Jones went to see him perform in a devised-theatre piece called The Hip-Hop Project, it marked a turning point. "Immediately I was enamored," she recalls. "I was already writing poetry and short stories, but that was the moment that I first knew, okay, I really want to be a part of something like this. I can still see aspects of that performance in FLEX."
Dramatic narratives about sports tend to focus on the outcome of a big game or a pivotal match; the result, win or lose, functions as a metaphor and signals the writer's point of view. But in FLEX, the play's ending isn't fixed. It was important to Jones to have real basketball played on stage, which comes with risk. No matter how skilled, actors—like athletes—are never guaranteed to make a basket. Jones opted to embrace that uncertainty, so the show's climactic game is won or lost based on a cast member's final play. "It's literally decided in the moment, once she shoots the ball," Jones says.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, Lincoln Center Theatre's resident director who's helming this production, loves FLEX's flexible ending. To her, it's the ideal conclusion for a play that's not really about winning or losing, but about resilience, trust and teamwork. "Sometimes you hit and sometimes you miss; sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't and yet it's okay," says Blain-Cruz, who also played basketball in high school. "We are going to get up again, we have the capacity to move forward even when things seem to be in our way."
The members of the team in FLEX face a host of obstacles, including an unplanned pregnancy, homophobia and internal competition as two hot-headed players, Starra (Erica Matthews) and Sidney (Tamera Tomakili), vie for the attention of college scouts. Despite those heavy issues, Blain-Cruz insists that FLEX is a joyful experience. "I love all the women on this stage, and I think the play has that deep love for them as well," she says. "To see a community of women who are not only written with love but are performed with such heart, it's inherently dramatic and it's inherently exciting."
In addition to heart, the all-women cast of FLEX brings authenticity to their performances, both emotionally and athletically. "We had these young women audition playing basketball," Blain-Cruz explains. "Auditions are already crazy, and now we're gonna ask you to play basketball inside of a theatre. I was astounded by everybody's work ethic: people were practicing, people made basketball tapes, some mixed with music… I was like, 'Look at all these ladies working!' That in and of itself was inspiring for me."
Jones adds that some naysayers predicted she would have trouble finding credible actor-athletes, but she was never worried. "You see so many athletes attempt to dive into the music industry or act because they've been performing all their lives," she says. "The basketball court, the football field, the tennis court—you're surrounded by an audience." Her faith has been vindicated twice now, with a co-world premiere production that played at Arkansas' TheatreSquared and Georgia's Theatrical Outfit last year, and now this brand-new mounting at Lincoln Center Theater. "I knew that women would be out there," Jones says. "But just to see it manifest over and over is simply amazing."
Since FLEX takes place 25 years ago, the play shows both how much progress has been made for young women athletes and the unresolved issues that continue to haunt sports and society. But Jones and Blain-Cruz hope audiences are galvanized by the play's recent history lesson, not disheartened. "You're just reminded that people fought. They took agency to change either their own futures or the future of the community around them," Blain-Cruz says.
Jones adds, "These young women are continuing the marathons of their lives, and this moment in time is just one that will be connected to many others." The message is that, in sports and in life, today's victory or defeat is less important than the long game.
Top image: Erica Matthews and Tamera Tomakili in FLEX. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.