Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit

The production runs from September 7 through October 2

By: Sep. 11, 2022
Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Pictured: Kenisha Johnson, India S. ​​​​Tyree, Whitney
Nelson, Aminah Williams, Hailey Elizabeth. Photo
Credit: Casey​​​​​​ Gardner Ford Photography. #toFLEX

Sisterhood and survival go hand-in-hand in FLEX, a new play by Candrice Jones currently having its world premiere at Theatrical Outfit. The story follows five high school seniors striving to take their women's basketball team to victory at the 1994 State Championships. However, their performance on the court is soon threatened by the issues pressing down on them in their personal lives. As the girls struggle their way through, they are forced to ask themselves "What does it truly mean to be part of a team?"

Amongst the cast is Starra Jones, an aspiring WNBA star whose ambition and need to be admired drive every choice she makes; Sidney Brown, a new transfer student from California whose natural talent has attracted the attention of college scouts; Donna Cunningham, a serious-minded lesbian with dreams of going to college in New Orleans; Cherise Howard, Starra's cousin and an eager junior youth pastor; and April Jenkins, a well-intentioned girl who is benched when their coach learns she's pregnant.

All of these girls are desperate to win, despite the fact that their team has been consistently held back by their coach's refusal to allow pregnant girls to play - and in their humble environment of Plainiole, Arkansas, teen pregnancy is hardly a rare occurrence. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that basketball may only be an outlet for the girls to work through their mounting anxieties over what will become of them after high school.

Candrice Jones has penned a deeply personal play, one in which the social pressure to succeed and to rise above one's circumstances runs counter to the more primal desire to be a part of something larger than oneself. This conflict is perhaps best encapsulated by Starra (played with admirable intensity by Hailey Elizabeth). When we meet Starra, she is dead set on fulfilling her late mother's dreams of joining the WNBA. However, as her desperate attempts to be the best push her to undermine her teammates, she is forced to examine whether rising above is even possible without a community to boost you up.

Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Pictured: Whitney Nelson, Aminah Williams, Andrea
Gooden, Kenisha Johnson, India S. ​​​​Tyree, Hailey
Elizabeth. Photo Credit: Casey​​​​​​ Gardner Ford
Photography. #toFLEX

In that sense, FLEX targets the very notion that being the best and being part of a team are mutually exclusive. Starra is obsessed with being better than Sidney, but the tension generated by their rivalry proves to be toxic to the team dynamic. The two of them bicker and argue over who scored more points at a game, who is more essential to the team, who is more deserving of the role of captain, etc. It's all superbly well-played by Hailey Elizabeth and Kenisha Johnson, both strutting and (dare I say it?) flexing for the audience as they try to assert their superiority.

However, it's neither Starra or Sidney, but April who delivers the play's clearest emotional truth when she reveals that although she wants to have an abortion, her mother doesn't have the money. In a moment of raw connectivity, Starra, Sidney, Donna, and Cherise agree to pool their funds to help April get the necessary healthcare that circumstance has denied her.

Director Patdro Harris allows a brief beat of contemplation before this resolution is made; a beat in which the audience sits in expectation, wondering if they are about to say what we think they will say. If these four girls are going to band together to do what many of us marching in the streets like to think that we would do in their situation (though we're never quite sure we would). Then Sidney's declarative "So? What's up?" cuts through the silence, signaling a flashing green light to the audience: they're doing this. It is a moment of solidarity, sacrifice, and community care. It is four girls who have sworn to do right by their teammate making good on that promise. It is the play's opportunity to put its emotional thesis statement to the test by demonstrating what downtrodden women of color are willing to do when one of their own is in crisis.

Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Pictured: India S. Tyree, Hailey Elizabeth, Whitney Nelson,
Aminah Williams, Kenisha Johnson. Photo Credit: Casey
Gardner Ford Photography. #toFLEX

These are the thematic beats that underlie the emotional core of FLEX. While these five women may have drastically different visions for their futures, it is the relationships they share with one another that give them the strength to pursue those visions. It is no wonder Jones's script comes alive when all five women are onstage together. The chemistry that the actors share is not only engaging, but it consistently reinforces the themes of team spirit and mutual support that drive the play.

This is not to say that the actors do not excel on their own, as each of them manages to bring a spirit and an authenticity to their characters that make the group scenes even stronger than they would have been otherwise. The bubbliness of Kenisha Johnson's Sidney and India S. Tyree's Cherise is counterbalanced well by Hailey Elizabeth's dour Starra and Whitney Nelson's often stoic Donna. Aminah Williams's April sits somewhere in between; they do a brilliant job of showcasing how troubled and yet how dedicated to her team April is.

The character dynamics are also aided by the inherent physicality of the production. Patdro Harris's work with basketball consultant Keisha Brown gives the basketball scenes an undeniable energy, to the point where the audience on opening night cheered with excitement every time one of the girls made a basket. Jones smartly uses this physicality to amplify certain character beats, particularly those between Starra and Sidney.

Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Pictured: Hailey Elizabeth, Kenisha Johnson. Photo
Credit: Casey Gardner Ford Photography. #toFLEX

The cast's athleticism also creates some welcome opportunities for levity, such as when Starra outlines for the audience all the ways that you can foul someone without getting caught by the referee. It also generates a feeling of spontaneity, as the outcome of certain scenes actually relies on whether or not the actors make their shots, which helps to raise the stakes throughout the play.

The cadence of Jones's script is admirably direct, dropping us into the girls' lives with an abruptness that evokes the unfamiliar. We learn things about the characters but the information is given out of context, prompting the audience to lean in and listen while we wait to learn more. To add to the effect, the play opens with all five women wearing fake pregnancy bellies while they practice, a bit that the audience must wait until the scene is nearly over to have explained to us. The effect somehow combines Brechtian alienation with atmospheric immersion by giving us the sense that we have entered a world that belongs not to us, but to the characters, and the onus is on us to adapt.

The design elements add to the sense of place. Scenic designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have fashioned a basketball court that feels as though it is both indoors and outdoors, with mounds of dirt surrounding the goal post but a brick wall backdrop that evokes the image of an urban playground. Costume designer Shilla Benning clearly channels the mid-90s aesthetic, decking the characters out in baggy pants and bright colors that perfectly match the period.

Lighting and projections designer Bradley Bergeron deserves special praise for the way they are able to conjure the pageantry and hype of a high school basketball game, while providing back wall projections that provide a sense of heightened narrativity. I'll also give recognition to props designer Caroline Cook for constructing a believable dead vulture (don't ask, just be ready for it) that summoned hearty laughter from the crowd when it emerged in the second act.

Review: Basketball is Not the Only Team Sport in FLEX at Theatrical Outfit
Pictured: Kenisha Johnson, Whitney Nelson, Aminah Williams,
India S. Tyree, Hailey Elizabeth. Photo Credit: Casey Gardner
Ford ​​Photography. #toFLEX

There are certainly a couple of issues here and there. The script takes shortcuts at times and a couple of story threads end feeling slightly unresolved (although perhaps that is intentional). Not only that, but the actors occasionally forget to play to each other, which makes certain choices come off as presentational or unmotivated. However, Jones's script reels the girls back in at its most crucial moments and ensures that the important emotional beats are protected.

FLEX is a play about dreams and ambition, but it is also a play about sisterhood. It is unlikely that these girls will continue to have a significant presence in each other's lives past high school (save Starra and Cherise, obviously, who are related). However, they are together now and for the moment can offer each other the support and camaraderie that they need to overcome the hurdles in front of them. Perhaps the true flex are the friends you make along the way (sorry, I couldn't resist).

FLEX runs at Theatrical Outfit from September 7 to October 2. Tickets start at $45, though discounts are available for students and seniors.


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From This Author - Luke Evans

Luke Evans is a theatre critic, dramaturg, and playwright in the second year of his M.A. program at the University of Houston. A Georgia native, Luke is newer to the theatre scene in Houston but has e... Luke Evans">(read more about this author)


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