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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 20, 2023

Erica Matthews and Tamera Tomakili
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
There's a lot of talk about basketball in Candrice Jones' Flex, opening tonight at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. If you are not well versed in the specifics of the sport, you might get lost in some of the details. But for the high school girls of the Lady Train basketball team, talking about the game is as natural as breathing.

The play takes place in rural Arkansas in 1997, significantly the same year that the WNBA launched its inaugural season. Inspired by these women role models, the five Black 17-year-old students who make up the Lady Train starting lineup are psyched by the potential opportunities that lie in their futures. But first, you've got to have a championship season. Which is why, when we first meet up with them, they are gathered for a practice at the home of their de facto team captain, Starra (an intense Erica Matthews).

Starra, who has been the leader of the pack since seventh grade, knows that the recruiters are already starting to watch them (her!), and she is determined to see to it that the team pulls out all the stops in order to win. "Everyone plays a li'l dirty," she says. "It ain't a foul unless the refs call it."

At the moment, the "ref" they are most worried about is their mentor, Coach Pace (Christiana Clark), a sea of calm supporting a flotilla of teenage turmoil. As we soon learn, one of them, April (Brittany Bellizeare), is pregnant and Coach does not allow pregnant students to play. It's not against regulations, but a bad experience in the past has fixed this decision for her. Will they be able to change her mind? Will they be supportive of April as she struggles with whether or not to have an abortion? These are two of the key issues that the play focuses on.

But there is also Starra's self-justified notion of playing dirty in order to win, especially when it extends to life beyond the game. She concocts and carries out a pretty nasty scheme against the newest member of the team, Sydney (Tamera Tomakili), who recently relocated from California. More than just an outsider, Sydney is also at least as good as Starra on the basketball court, and her presence threatens Starra's plans for herself. Between April's plight and Starra's win-at-all-costs stance, Coach's synergetic approach to the game is on the verge of collapse.

While these three (Starra, Sydney, and April) are the central characters, the team is nicely rounded out by its other two members. They are Donna (Renita Lewis) and Cherise (Ciara Monique, delightfully quirky), who are in a budding romantic relationship. Cherise is particularly interesting to watch as she tries to reconcile her religious faith with everything else that is going on with her teammates. Eboni Edwards joins the cast in supportive roles as a referee and as an up-and-coming sophomore member of the team. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps everything moving at a rapid pace, in keeping with the characters' adolescent energy, something the cast members display in great abundance.

Set designer Matt Saunders gives us not one, but two basketball courts and also throws in a couple of surprises along the way. But the biggest surprise may come late in the play, when even those in the audience for whom basketball is not a way of life will find themselves rooting and cheering for Lady Train as they throw everything they have into the championship game.

Through August 20, 2023
Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center
150 West 65th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: