August 13, 2023 

Review: ‘FLEX’ provokes in ways that most fictional storytelling around women’s basketball has not

Playwright Candrice Jones and director Lileana Blain-Cruz nail the entertaining and heartfelt conflict.

NEW YORK — Even if women’s basketball players wanted to just focus on their craft and playing on the court, life doesn’t give them a choice. They are expected to lean into and confront what is going on around them off the court.

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This matter of fact is omnipresent in “FLEX,” a play written by Candrice Jones and directed by Tony-nominated director Lileana Blain-Cruz, which is currently playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in Manhattan from now through Aug. 20. 

“FLEX” presents a complex array of conflicts that five teens on a high school girls basketball team in rural Arkansas wade through in addition to taking their team, the Lady Train, to the state championship. Jones’ script introduces a diverse array of personalities in her starting five, and provides each player with stakes, and an understanding of who they are at the current moment of their adolescent lives.

“FLEX” takes place in 1998, which both sound designer Palmer Hefferan and costume designer Mika Eubanks make sure is felt throughout. The play itself reminds its audience multiple times that the story takes place around a year after the WNBA’s inception. One of its protagonists Starra Jones (Erica Matthews), the feisty, driven and egocentric point guard, has multiple soliloquies to her dead mother about not only playing for a Division I school but one day getting drafted into “the league”.

The curtain opens — or rather tips off — during practice. The audience meets its protagonists while they are engaging in protest. The five starters stole fake pregnancy bellies from a home economics class to stand in solidarity with one of their own, April Jenkins (Brittany Bellizeare), who recently found out that she is pregnant. The team’s coach Francine Pace (played earnestly by Christiana Clark) has a strict rule that her players who get pregnant can’t play at all.

While the main plot revolves around how the team grapples with how to embrace their newly pregnant teammate and try assiduously to make sure she can help them win a state title, the main conflict however, is between Starra and California native Sidney Brown (Winning Time’s’ Tamera Tomakili). Brown is a talented small forward that Jones is resistant to share the spotlight with as to the two jockey throughout the performance to earn the attention of college scouts.

Grappling with me versus team and committing to self-sacrifice is at the center of what connects all of the storylines in “FLEX. The production’s namesake comes from the basketball play called a flex cut, where the offense sets multiple screens all over the half-court and keeps its players in constant motion. The team has trouble executing the action in the first act, but then buys into it during the production’s falling action.

In addition to the on-court sacrifices, the players learn to acquiesce and accept each other and themselves. The most vulnerable performances come from Renita Lewis and Ciara Monique, who play post players Donna Cunningham and Cherise Howard who are starting to form an illicit romance. Donna, who is definitely more secure about her sexuality, yearns for more alongside Cherise, someone much less secure in her feelings.

Cherise contrasts her confusing feelings for Donna by taking her desires of being a youth minister to an extreme. She uses her faith to overcompensate for not only the complicated feelings inside of her but in her non committal support of April, who considers getting an abortion. Cherise discusses throughout the production how executing a team baptism would serve her and her friends well and she even considers that it might “wash the gay away.”

One of the most memorable scenes in the entire play came when Sidney hosted a team sleepover and performed a sexual education class with condoms and a bunch of cucumbers and eggplants. Monique’s Cherise is so uncomfortable and tense, which strikes a jarring juxtaposition to Sidney, the player who’s most confident and comfortable in her expressions of her own sexuality.

The cast of off-broadway play FLEX at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater at Lincoln Center. (Photo courtesy of FLEX and taken by Marc J. Franklin)

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The culmination of all of the tension between the five protagonists came in the scene where they all went with April to go get her abortion. The scene was anchored by a makeshift 90s Volvo convertible that set designer Matt Saunders and sound designer Hefferan brought to life each time the car swerved on the road. The tension built with each swerve the car took when finally a bird flew out into the center of the road, interrupting their journey and then died right on the spot. The bird essentially was the albatross, preventing the quintet from completing their trip, but also forcing the group to flush all of their secrets and get all of the bubbling tension to float to the surface. The bird’s death let all of the guilt out.

The anguish that was so intrinsically felt during the car crash scene and the following split-screens didn’t carry over to production’s end. The basketball part of “FLEX” felt forced. The actors’ movements were convincing, but the emotions were not. But it’s difficult to play out a basketball scene when the opponent is imaginary. A silver screen or a television adaptation might make this part more convincing.

But maybe the end of the play would have been more convincing if the cast had lost on Tuesday evening. They revealed in a post-play talkback that the playwright intended for the end to be different each night depending on whether or not Starra made her final basket.

 According to Clark, the team’s coach, the cast has won over 40 of their performances, while around less than ten of their audiences have been treated to a loss. There’s more raw emotion and more that is learned in losing.

But in the endings where the team triumphs, the Lady Train defies the expectations of a small town in Arkansas that expected them to fail. It’s a metaphor for how women’s basketball, especially at the professional level, has been expected to fail and through overcoming adversity after adversity, finds a way to shush the haters.

Some of the conflicts that arise throughout the entirety of “FLEX” are resolved by the play’s end, and some aren’t, much like life. But the way in which the performance ended on Tuesday night didn’t radiate the sense of triumph that it should have. The final scene, which is the state championship game, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been after an entire two and a half hours of intricate character development, creative staging and poignant set pieces about what it means to be a young woman and a women’s basketball player not only in the 1990s but today in 2023.

That’s where the pregnancy storyline feels like the strongest piece of all. Early in the show, one of the players doesn’t get why the town expects the team to flop if a player gets pregnant. And there are plenty of modern examples that proves that thought — Serena Williams famously won a grand slam, Skylar Diggins-Smith put up an All-WNBA season last year and Dearica Hamby won a WNBA championship, all playing while pregnant.

But in “FLEX,” the player said, “I don’t see why it’s a big deal.” In the quarter-century since the show’s set time, one only needs to look at the cases of Diggins-Smith and Hamby to see that the stigma around pregnancy still persists.

While a lot has changed in the women’s basketball universe, some issues remain timeless.

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Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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