They bend their knees, their palms outstretched, their eyes sharp and alert.
The young women of Lady Train, a high school basketball team in rural Arkansas, are training hard for every possibility on the court. This means preparing for adulthood in the beloved tradition of sports-themed coming-of-age stories.
So perhaps in the first scene, “flex,” The show, which opened Thursday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at the Lincoln Center Theater, appears to be all pregnant. Playwright Candace Jones excels equally at the sly sitcom humor and the fast-talking rhythms of teenagers and athletes, as evidenced by this hint at her stunning New York debut.
The jagged bumps underneath Lady Train’s various fly-casual printed t-shirts (made in 1997, spot-on outfit by Micah Eubanks) are clearly fakes, contraband from home economics class. But for April (gentle Brittany Belisere), the possibility of childbirth is no joke. She has been off the bench since the team’s no-nonsense coach (Christiana Clarke) found out she was pregnant. Abdominal training is both a protest and a show of solidarity.
Threatening that bond is the inevitable rivalry between the two top players. There’s Starla (the bright Erica Matthews), a snarky, headstrong team captain trying to prove her mettle to her late mother, and a wide-eyed, messy-smiling, smacking Sydney (Tamera Tomakiri, hilarious) from Los Angeles. There’s also a nuanced romance between Donna (Lenita Lewis), the flat-faced Donna (the show’s nuanced MVP), and youth pastor Shelleys (Ciara Monique), whose faith conflicts with her desires and whose April contemplates an abortion.
Jones and director Liliana Blaine-Cruise, both former high school basketball players, demonstrate deft mastery of the game, not only in the narrated action sequences on the blond wood half-court set (written by Matt Sanders), but also in the passing and shooting dynamics that unite friends and teammates.
“Flex” even has the alchemy to evoke a passionate affinity for the home team in the crowd (cheers and applause fueled the fervor throughout the performance I attended). Perhaps it’s Lady Train’s spell-bee cheer (“Big,” “Bad,” and “Boss” stand out), or Aaliyah’s singing with the top down on Donna’s dusty-blue Chrysler convertible (another impressive design feat) inspired by it.
But the special sauce also lies in Jones’ careful paring of figures, providing just enough detail to pique curiosity about who these women might become without claiming to know exactly who they are. (They’re teenagers, after all.) Whether or not Starla makes it to the WNBA, she’s going to have to wrestle with her own ego. And Cherries doesn’t seem to be willing to let go of God, but what if her devotion feels like a trap?
That Flex has managed to draw so much attention to character potential is evidence of the extraordinary synergy between Jones, Blaine-Cruise, and cast members who are as present and engaged in conversation as they are at the net.
The sports-genre tropes, the betrayed chastity pacts, and the scout’s attention-grabbing competition featured here include the broad considerations that make youth and team sports such difficult and fertile ground. What do we owe ourselves and what are we sacrificing to each other? Why learn the meaning of fair when life is so unfair? To pick yourself up when you’re knocked down and savor the moments of realizing your wildest dreams.
Until August 20th at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Manhattan. lct.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.