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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Torch Song, Seven Keys and A Year with Frog and Toad

Charlotte McDaniel, Eboni Edwards (turned away),
Tyra Lee Ramsey, Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle,
and Aubree Chanel Dixon

Photo by Caroline Yang
Five talented young Black women take the court to play basketball, a game they all love, which they demonstrate with a first-rate display of dribbling and passing. These are the A-level players of the Lady Trains, the 1998 girls high school basketball team in a fictional small town in Arkansas. The WNBA launched the year before, giving girl basketball players across the nation a new goal to which they can aspire. This is especially meaningful in places like rural Arkansas, where futures beyond getting pregnant, getting married, and working at the Dollar General are scarce.

Flex is a well-crafted new play by Candrice Jones, now in a production directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene at Penumbra Theatre. Like The Wolves, it is a top-tier example of the "student sports as a launch pad for adult life" genre. Jones is herself from small-town Arkansas, and her deep knowledge of the turf shows in the specificity of her writing. Flex premiered at Theatre Squared in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2022 and was swooped up by Lincoln Center Theatre for a June 2023 production in their Newhouse Theatre, where it was warmly received. This makes Flex a hot commodity, and Penumbra scored big in bringing the play so rapidly to its stage.

The Lady Trains are having a hot season, on their way to regionals with their eyes set beyond to the state tournament, which would be a first for the team. If the girls are eager for this chance (and they are), so is Coach Pace, who came near, but not near enough, when she herself was a player and team captain. Starra, who is now the captain, sees the upcoming games and the college recruitment scouts who will be attending as her ticket to the WNBA, her endgame. Back in the day, Starra's mother played on the Lady Trains team with Coach Pace, but she never played in college, joining the army instead. She has died–it is never made clear how she died, or how long ago–and Starra often finds herself talking to her absent mother, seeking advice and laying out her plans. This device lets the audience inside the complex workings of Starra's mind.

When the season began, the five A-list players–Starra, Sidney, Cherise, April, and Donna–made a pact to forswear drinking, drugs and sex. Last year, two of the seniors on the team got pregnant and Coach Pace had to enforce her ironclad rule that a girl who is pregnant could not play: the risk of harming themselves or their baby is too great. This is something Coach Pace learned when she herself was a young player, and it made an indelible impression. Before we are far into the play we learn that April, despite the pact, is pregnant. The others, led by Starra, lobby Coach Pace to make an exception to her rule, but the coach is implacable.

Starra's biggest concern, though, is Sidney, who moved this year from California to Arkansas with a waft of glamour–her sophisticated haircut, in contrast to the other girls, serves as a marker. Sidney is a star quality player, an asset to the team, but a threat to Starra's fervent intent to stand out to the scouts. Also on the team is Cherise, Starra's cousin and a devout Christian. She serves in a youth ministry and seizes every opportunity to urge the other girls to be baptized. Donna rounds out group. She appears to be the least complicated among them and is the group's peacemaker, forever aiming to smooth over the inevitable spats. Donna is not aiming for an athletic scholarship, and already has plans to attend college in New Orleans. When Cherise accuses Donna of running away to New Orleans, Donna responds that it's not running away, but opening a new door. Still, we are left to wonder what (in Cherise's eyes) Donna might be running away from.

Flex covers a lot of plot–perhaps too much, in trying to squeeze in a list of the top issues, rather than sticking to one focal point–but it provides a wide canvass view of the challenges young woman face as they come of age. The sharply written dialogue and excellent performances of all five players make each a real and distinct person, and when bad choices put a freeze on the Lady Trains' comradery, it feels completely authentic.

Eboni Edwards is a standout as Starra. The role has the most depth and stage time to reveal her inner life to us, and Edwards delivers full court. One of her gifts is a sly smile that hints at a shield of confidence lain over a pool of doubt. Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle is excellent as Sidney, conveying a smoother veneer than the other girls, perhaps a nod to her upbringing in the California sun, but with a sharp mind and strong independence that suffers no fools.

Tyra Lee Ramsey is terrific as Cherise, persuasive in raising the sanctuary of her Christianity as a remedy for the tribulations of others, but not seeing the contradictions as it applies to her own life. Ramsey keenly expresses Cherise's feelings toward her cousin–disapproving of Starra's transgressions, but protective when Starra faces consequences for her actions. Aubree Chanel Dixon is greatly affecting as April. She conveys a great decency as a human being and is deeply conflicted about her unplanned pregnancy, her desire to play ball, and her awareness that she is in no way ready to be a parent. Charlotte McDaniel is warmly winning as Bonnie, fulfilling the role of peacemaker and sense-seeker that the playwright assigns to her, even as we learn that she has a more complicated inner life.

The sixth wheel on the Lady Train is Coach Pace, played with panache by Regina Marie Williams. As an actor who has excelled playing everyone from Dinah Washington to Dolly Levi, Williams breathes a depth of passion into her role, coaching her players not only toward victory on the court but toward integrity in life, while she still carries the burden of a long-past lapse in judgement. Williams fully conveys the hunger this coach has to take the state championship that slipped away from her as a student athlete.

Director Tiffany Nichole Greene draws out a naturalistic repartee among the five team-mates, whose demeanor fluctuates between girlish singalongs with the radio, effusive shows of support for one another, and bitchy criticisms and put-downs–all totally true to life. She stages the basketball scenes with vitality, and the "big game" that comes at the play's climax delivers the desired high-stakes tension. Kudos must also go to basketball consultants Tommy Franklin and Faith Johnson Patterson, who had the five Lady Trains on stage shooting, dribbling, and talking like bona fide players.

Ruben Arana-Downs' set provides a great facsimile of a basketball court that can be turned into other locations–abetted by Fallon Williams light and video design–as easily as dribbling a ball across the court. Ari Fulton's costume designs offer apt samples of female teenage-hood circa 1998.

Now, about the play's title. The "flex offense" is a basketball strategy that creates scoring opportunities near the basket or near the perimeter. Without getting into detail (for which I am woefully unqualified), it is noteworthy that one advantage of the flex offense is that it is generally not dependent on a player's position, meaning all five players have an equal opportunity to score since each player could, conceivably, cut to a new spot during its execution. This is a great metaphor for the Lady Trains–a strong team where any of the players could shine–and the conflict that strength poses for Starra, who wants to be the alpha player, actually calculating to get and keep the spotlight on herself. By the end of Flex the notion of "flex" prevails. Jones wraps things up in the last couple of scenes and makes a positive statement, though it felt a bit too pat after all that came before.

Flex has a few hiccups in its plotting here and there. An example is the coach locating the girls who are on a long drive together when, before cell phones and GPS devices, this would seem very unlikely, with no explanation as to how it was accomplished. It would have been helpful to know more about the death of Starra's mother as a way of understanding Starra's behavior. If I am nit-picking, that's because Flex is, overall, so strong a play, telling such a compelling story, and with such authentic dialogue among its characters, that I'd have loved to see it take the championship title without committing a few foul along the way–to use a basketball metaphor.

No question though, a few fouls aside, Flex is an excellent play, and Penumbra has provided its usual top-tier production, spurred on by six dazzling performances. It belongs on any theatregoer's must-see list, and should also be seen by anyone who cares about the development of adolescent females–in particular, females of color–and the pressures that bear down on them.

Flex runs through May 19, 2024, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit

Playwright: Candrice Jones; Director: Tiffany Nichole Greene; Scenic Designer: Ruben Arana-Downs; Costume Design: Ari Fulton; Lighting & Video Design: Fallon Williams; Sound Design: Theo Langason, Peter Morrow; Properties Design: Amy Reddy; Assistant Costume Designer: Mary Farrell; Basketball Consultants: Tommy Franklin, Faith Johnson Patterson; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Keara J Lavandowska.

Cast: Aubree Chanel Dixon (April Jenkins), Eboni Edwards (Starra Jones), Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle (Sidney Brown), Charlotte McDaniel (Donna Cunningham), Tyra Lee Ramsey (Cherise Howard), Regina Marie Williams (Coach Francine Pace).