The political left is all-in for abortion rights. The cultural left is far more ambivalent. When is the last time you saw a movie, play or TV show wherein a lead character gets an abortion? Somehow this medical procedure remains so fraught, alienating and/or problematic that writers of our pop entertainment fear it will make a character irredeemably unsympathetic if she undergoes the operation.
It is very likely that the character of April eventually gets an abortion in Candrice Jones’ new play, “Flex,” which opened Thursday at the Mitze E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. But after the actor Brittany Bellizeare delivers a blistering scene in which the character April spews a litany of legitimate reasons why she shouldn’t deliver the fetus she’s now carrying — all of which is powerfully written by Jones and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz — the abortion obfuscations, equivocations and/or maybe-nots begin.
The abortion (if, in fact, it ever takes place) is delayed so that April can first be baptized by a friend, Cherise (Ciara Monique), who is the Charlotte York in this group of women.
But let’s back up here for a moment. Few groups of women could be more different from the female quartet in the “Sex and the City” franchise than the “Flex” high-school basketball team, who live in rural Arkansas and are on the road to the state finals in the year 1998. There is, however, one big similarity beyond the overall female camaraderie: It always pushed credulity that Carrie, Samantha and Miranda would put up with Charlotte’s prissy moralizing for more than a weekend of brunches.
Jones makes it somewhat more palatable that her four other female characters would accept Cherise, because, after all, she is a good basketball player. But “Flex” also makes it clear that most of the women are great friends. In fact, Cherise and Donna (Renita Lewis) are something more than friends. Monique leavens her character’s strict Christianity with sweet humor, while Lewis brings a no-nonsense stoicism to hers.
Otherwise, Cherise’s nascent lesbianism in no way affects her world view and ultimately comes off as a playwright’s arbitrary choice to goose up a character. While Cherise and Donna are spending their evenings not making out in a convertible and April is not getting an abortion, Starra (Erica Matthews) undertakes a scheme to have Sidney (Tomera Tomakili), the new and arguably the best basketball player, eliminated from the team.
It’s intriguing to see the hoops that Jones jumps through as a writer to make April’s possible abortion acceptable to the audience. Jones offers no such ambiguities regarding Starra’s behavior toward Sidney, which is not only inexcusable (as the other characters make very clear) but renders the play’s feel-good ending something of a sham. There are a few other head-scratchers along the way.
Starra’s desire not to play fair has everything to do with her mother. This revelation, delivered by the team’s coach (Christiana Clark), somehow comes as a complete surprise to Starra, who obviously can’t count to nine months. There is also the coach’s roadside rescue of the team on their way to the abortion clinic, which is only slightly less absurd than the Rosebud moment regarding Mom. Clark manages to create a viable character despite being little more than a plot device.
Jones’ writing is in top form when she gets really intense, as with April’s meltdown over her unwanted pregnancy, and when she depicts her group of young women at their silliest, when they’re just hanging out and having fun.
Blain-Cruz’s direction of her ensemble creates a forceful team of talented actors. They are most definitely not a great team of basketball players. Jones delivers a number of action scenes, interspersed throughout the play, which take us on to the court as the five women play basketball. Blain-Cruz has not found a sufficient degree of stylization to stage these moments of athleticism. As choreographed, the scenes make little sense sports-wise, and instead of taking us into the game, they expose the actors as not very good basketball players.