Lydia R. Diamond rushes into the rehearsal hall of McCarter Theater, breathless with apologies. “I am so, so sorry,” she gasps, having forgotten an interview appointment. “I can’t believe I’m so late. I’m so sorry. That’s terrible!”
With the impressive credentials she has racked up over the past several years, this 37-year-old playwright could easily have taken the prima donna route and brushed off her tardiness. But Diamond, whose “Stick Fly” opens McCarter’s 2007-’08 season with previews starting on Friday, September 7, is clearly not the type. It is only when I assure her that no harm has been done that she settles down for a chat.
Diamond’s star has been on the rise since her play “The Gift Horse” was produced by the prestigious Goodman Theater in Chicago and awarded the 2000-2001 Theodore Ward Prize for African American playwriting at Columbia College in Chicago. Her resume also includes later productions by the Goodman as well as works staged by the Steppenwolf Theater Company. Last season, her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was praised in productions in Chicago and New York.
Diamond originally intended to be an actor. She majored in theater at Northwestern University, graduating in 1991, but her focus began to shift after she “stumbled upon playwriting,” she says. “I had taken a class in the performance of autobiographical work, where I adapted a piece by Nikki Giovanni. And in my junior year, I took a class with Charles Smith, a great playwright and the only African American on the faculty at that time. I found it empowering. I was discouraged by the lack of roles for African American women, so I took it upon myself to write roles that weren’t there. And I figured out I was better at the writing than the acting. I think the way I am sort of hyper-aware of the world, and relationships, is fine for a playwright, but not for an actor.”
The arts came naturally to Diamond, raised by a mother, a musician and an academic, who exposed her early to theater, music, and visual art. “My mom is a flutist who would have been in an orchestra but she came up at a time when black women couldn’t,” Diamond says. “She taught at different colleges. When I was in grammar school, she had a job with the fine arts center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. So I met people like Jean-Pierre Rampal, Pinchas Zukerman, and dancers in the Alvin Ailey company.”
Diamond studied violin for many years but was really interested in acting. “I didn’t think of theater as something I could do,” she says. “But finally in high school, I begged out of it (violin). I wasn’t very good at it.”
After graduating from Northwestern Diamond stayed in Chicago. She entered the theater scene with her own venture, called Another Small Black Theatre Company With Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerve Productions — essentially a one-woman show. Her first production was a play called “Solitaire,” which had won her a playwriting award in college. She began meeting other actors, writers, and theater professionals who were based in the Windy City.
“Chicago is amazing in that there is an absence of hierarchy in the theater,” she says. “There are large theaters and small theaters. It is really a wonderful community, the perfect place to grow up in theater.”
Discovering the Chicago Dramatists, an organization for playwrights that mentors works for the American theater, was key in her development, Diamond says. “It was the first time I was in a roomful of people who identified themselves as playwrights. It was the first time I said, ‘I’m a playwright.’ A new world opened up to me.”
Diamond continued to act but playwriting gradually became her priority. “The Gift Horse,” “The Bluest Eye” and a Steppenwolf commission called “Voyeurs de Venus” led to “Stick Fly.” The play is set at a wealthy African American family’s beach house on Martha’s Vineyard — and not in Oak Bluffs, the Martha’s Vineyard community that has had a significant black population for centuries. “That’s an important part of the piece, that it’s not in Oak Bluffs,” Diamond says. The action centers around the family’s coping with issues of class, parental expectations, and racial identification. The arrival of the son’s fiancee, who does not come from wealth, shakes things up.
The play was premiered last year at a theater called Congo Square in Chicago, directed by Derrick Sanders. Shirley Jo Finney directs the McCarter production, which opens on Friday, September 14, and runs through Sunday, October 14, at McCarter’s Berlind Theater.
Diamond had not been to Martha’s Vineyard when she began writing the play but has since had the opportunity to visit. “I was familiar with it. It’s a famous place, and I had moved enough in circles with people who knew it that I felt I could write about it,” she says. “When I did go, I was pleased to see that I was writing in the right direction.”
The issues of race and class are key in this and other plays Diamond has written but she does not have an agenda, she says. “I am just writing plays inhabited by people I know, a world that is familiar to me. I always want audiences just to have been entertained. I just try to put something into the universe that will be worthwhile.”
While Diamond, who is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and a resident playwright of the Chicago Dramatists, was pleased with the Chicago production of “Stick Fly” and another one in Atlanta, she is especially encouraged with the one that has been shaping up this summer at McCarter. “Emily (Mann, McCarter artistic director) empowered me to bring people I respected to the table,” Diamond says. “The play was given a slot in the season before it was a complete play. I felt good about the Congo Square production, which was directed by Chuck Smith, but it wasn’t like the luxurious massaging I’m getting here.”
As it turns out Diamond, who has taught playwriting at several colleges and is currently teaching at Boston University, has done some major rewrites during the McCarter rehearsal period. “They are not major thematically but just better writing,” she says. “Structurally, the play is just more solid.”
Diamond’s favorite production of all is her three-year-old son, Baylor, who was at their home in Cambridge, MA, with her husband, sociologist and Harvard professor John Diamond, when we talked. Diamond was looking forward to bringing Baylor to Princeton with her a few days later. “Now that he is three, I feel I’m just coming back into my own as an artist,” she says. “I bring with me such an understanding of an important part of life. It’s a different perspective. It’s so much more fun to do theater when it’s not overly important anymore. All I can do is do a good job, because I’m somebody’s Mommy. I love getting the good reviews and all of that, but Baylor is most important.”
Diamond feels she is just getting to know the theater scene in Boston, just across the Charles River from her home. Her play “The Bluest Eye” is being produced there this coming season. “My feeling is that Boston is on the cusp of something in theater,” she says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Diamond will continue her mission to write plays that entertain people. “I feel a responsibility for that,” she says. “It’s icing if they have been challenged. I just want people to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth.”
“Stick Fly,” previews start Friday, September 7, opening night is Friday, September 14, 8 p.m. Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. East coast premiere of a contemporary drama by Lydia Diamond and directed by Shirley Jo Finney. Through Sunday, October 14. 609-258-2787.