Friday, May 3, 2024

"FLEX" at Penumbra Theatre Company

The new play FLEX, about a high school girls basketball team in the mid-90s, is receiving its area premiere at Penumbra Theatre Company. Like The Wolves (about a high school girls soccer team, which the Jungle produced twice a few years ago), it's about so much more than sports. It's about friendship, teamwork, betrayal and what it's like to be a teenage girl. It's a little lighter than what I remember The Wolves to be. While there is tragedy and difficult issues that the girls are dealing with, in the end it's a feel-good story about camaraderie and the triumph of a group when everyone works together. See it at Penumbra in St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood through May 19.

In just about two hours (including intermission), we follow the "Lady Train" basketball team in a small town in Arkansas. The aptly named Starra (Eboni Edwards) was seemingly destined to be a star, following in her now deceased mother's footsteps. She has several monologues in which she's talking to her mother, which gives us insight into her character (and Eboni makes her very appealing and likable, despite Starra's missteps). She's joined on the team by longtime friends - the newly pregnant April (Aubree Chanel Dixon) and secret girlfriends Cherise and Donna (Tyra Lee Ramsey and Charlotte McDaniel) - as well as recent California implant Sidney (Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle), who has scouts following her. Coach (Regina Marie Williams) kicks April off the team when she learns about the pregnancy; she has a rule, not out of malice or judgement, but out of safety. Her teammates try to help April in any way they can, while Starra and Sidney try to navigate their rivalry.

the cast of FLEX (photo by Caroline Yang)
Director Tiffany Nichole Greene (who has worked on a little show called Hamilton, among others) leads this talented cast through not just the tricky basketball scenes, but also the drama and humor of the story (sometimes all at the same time). The scene transitions are very smooth, often the next scene is being set up before we finish this one, which keeps the momentum and story flowing. As the coach, #TCTheater Queen Regina has a smaller role, but makes her presence felt. The five young actors, most of whom are new to me, take on most of the storytelling, and do a wonderful job. Each is a specific and complex character, with believable relationships between them. And not only that - they can really play! Thanks to the rare theater credit of basketball consultants (Tommy Franklin and Faith Johnson Patterson) there are lots of dribbles, passes, and slam dunks (is that what they're called? I don't know basketball). The girls all look like naturals, despite some of them being new to the sport (or any sports!).

The stage at Penumbra has been turned into a basketball court in a gym, with a huge rotating back wall that transforms from the gym to a wooden wall for other locations - a backyard court and living room among them. A couple of benches and two armchairs serve multiple purposes, moved quickly and efficiently into place. The mid-90s setting allows for some retro music (which I can't identify - I know pop music about as much as I know basketball) and fashion, with pieces added to the basic basketball uniform to make each girl unique. (Scenic design by Ruben Arana-Downs, sound design by Theo Langason and Peter Morrow, costume design by Ari Fulton.)

FLEX deals with some heavy issues that these young Black women in the South are dealing with, but it's ultimately hopeful as they get through it by working together and supporting each other. It takes place around the time when the WNBA started, and now, almost 30 years later, it feels like women's basketball is finally getting the kind of attention it deserves, although we still have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. If you're a new (or old) fan of women's basketball, you'll likely get a kick out of this show. But even if you know nothing about the b-ball (I gather "flex" is the name of a play?), you can still relate to the characters and relationships depicted.