Playwright Lydia R. Diamond
A Chicago transplant talks about her transition to the East Coast, her mission as a writer, and the challenges of juggling a creative career with motherhood.

 

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Playwright Lydia R. Diamond dazzled local theatre audiences and critics last spring with “Stick Fly” at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, in a production extended by popular demand, following on the heels of “Harriet Jacobs” at Underground Railway Theatre in Cambridge.

On the surface, the two plays couldn’t be more different. “Harriet Jacobs” is historical, a chilling window into a slave girl’s life, based on slave Harriet Jacobs’ actual autobiography. “Stick Fly” is contemporary, a razor-sharp comedy of manners set in the summer home of an affluent African American family, the LeVays. Over a weekend, the patriarch, his two sons, their girlfriends — one black, one white — and the daughter of the family maid hash out issues of race and class at a furious pace.

But no matter what the setting, Diamond’s scripts bring people of color to the stage, and through their conversation, examine the themes that impassion her: race, class, gender and sexual dynamics.

Many of her characters are thoughtful, smart African American women with a flair for words. They are not unlike Diamond herself, an assistant professor of Theatre Arts at Boston University with a degree from Northwestern University and a resume that lists some 40 productions of seven different plays over the past decade — with an array of awards for most of them.

On a muggy summer morning, Diamond stood tall and lean in a black sundress in the kitchen of her Cambridge condominium, waiting for a tray of croissants to warm in the oven. Her husband John, a Harvard professor, finished brewing a pot of coffee and exited the scene. They had just sent their 6-year-old son Baylor off to a day at summer camp. Pouring coffee, the playwright pondered a question: Does she see herself in her characters?


 

“They’re all little pieces of me and of people I love,” she said over the clink of spoons and cups. “I see myself mostly in their flaws. And I can celebrate the flaws in a way I can’t do in life.”

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“Stick Fly” protagonist Taylor, for one, the fiancée of the younger LeVay brother, is a passionate, educated young black woman raised by a college-professor single mother. Taylor is sensitive, and a thinker, but harbors deep resentments and occasionally blurts out brutally frank diatribes even against people with good intentions, such as the other brother’s white girlfriend, Kimber.

While Diamond sees herself in Taylor — not least in the fact that Taylor has found a kind, intelligent, gentle black man to marry — she can let Taylor rant aloud in a way Diamond says she’s never done.

Settling on a living room sofa, long legs tucked under her, she talked about growing up with her college-professor mother, moving from one university town to another after her parents divorced when she was 3 years old.

An only child, Diamond loved to read, especially aloud. “My mother and I used to read to each other. We read “Roots,” and we’d say, ‘As soon as it gets better, we’ll go to sleep. ” She said, ruefully, “We were up until midnight a lot of nights.”

She also read to her dolls, who served as early tools for the future writer.

On stage recently with other local playwrights in a panel discussion at Lesley University, Diamond told the audience she learned to create dialogue by having her Barbie dolls talk to each other. Even now, she said, “I have people talking in my head, and I transcribe it.”

She grew up steeped in the value of reading, education and music. Her grandparents had master’s degrees and were teachers and musicians, she said, gesturing to their pictures on the piano. The array of family photos new and old also includes one of a great-grandfather who was a slave and a minister.

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At Northwestern, Diamond studied acting before finding her calling in playwriting, earning a degree in theatre and performance studies in 1991. She met her husband-to-be shortly after, as he was earning his Ph.D. in sociology there. They married and lived in Chicago, where she began her theatrical career.

The couple moved east in 2004 when John took a teaching job at Harvard. By that time, Diamond’s plays had already been produced in prominent Chicago theatres. But in Boston, she had to start anew, working to gain recognition in the local theatre scene and at the same time caring for 6-month-old Baylor. It was a difficult and isolating transition.

“I went from being playwright-about-town and educator to being faculty wife and new mother, without the buffer of my own community and my very close girlfriends,” she recalled.

She soon broke into the local scene. The Huntington Theatre selected her for their 2006 Playwriting Fellows program. She began teaching at Boston University’s School of Theatre. And Company One, a Boston theatre company known for its focus on diversity, approached her to produce “The Bluest Eye,” her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel of a black girl in 1941 Ohio yearning for the blue eyes that would make her visible to the society around her.

“Lydia is a real treasure in Boston,” said Shawn Lacount, Company One’s artistic director. “She mixes a sense of high academia with beautiful storytelling.”

Company One also produced Diamond’s “Voyeurs de Venus” in 2008, in which a young black anthropologist examines the infamous exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th century African woman brought to Europe to be a sideshow attraction.

“We’re interested in serving a young, urban, diverse population, and her work speaks to that group,” said Lacount. “She’s so smart, her work is so rich and layered and complicated — and she’s so funny.”

Diamond doesn’t always mean to be so funny. But it seems she can’t help it, eliciting laughs at post-show talkbacks and panel discussions as well as through her scripts. With “Stick Fly,” she was dismayed by the laughter.

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“I remember opening night, I realized, ‘I think I’ve written a comedy!’ I thought I had written a multi-layer, searing investigation of family dynamics and class and race, in a structure that was much more traditional than anything I’d written,” she said. “And then I thought, wow, this is really a comedy — and then I felt misunderstood.”

But critics saw both the wit and the wisdom; the Boston Globe called the play “thrillingly substantial” and “acutely observant, laugh-out-loud funny, achingly painful, and complicated as only real human stories can be;” the Boston Phoenix compared it to a cocktail of “equal parts Cosby and cultural anthropology, with a splash of [Eugene] O’Neill.”

While Diamond garnered professional recognition in Boston, at home she was adjusting to the discovery that her son is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. It was an “emotionally challenging” struggle, she said.

Diamond rarely discusses the autism publicly, but realizes that being open about it could help other parents. “I was just getting the diagnosis when Holly Robinson Peete was featured in a magazine, talking about her son’s autism,” she said. “It was the first time I’d heard a celebrity talk about it, and that was hugely comforting to me.”

Like anyone juggling work with motherhood, Diamond negotiates a constant balancing act — and harbors occasional guilt. Her “mommy guilt,” she said, is largely about having a career that requires travel.

“It’s hard,” she said, lightly brushing her fingers against the hollow of her throat as she spoke, her brow furrowing, “It’s just weird to get on a plane and travel in a direction opposite from your kid. It never feels right.”

It helps that her husband is a full partner in childrearing, she said, and that their work schedules are relatively flexible. “Another thing that’s been helpful to me is being transparent about [parent duties] with people I’m working with,” she says. “And not being apologetic.”

Several years ago she was invited to a writers’ retreat and she arranged to bring the baby and a nanny along. “They put them up in an apartment across the street,” she explained. Pause. “It was actually fabulously not successful,” she said, perfectly deadpan before bursting into heartfelt laughter. “It didn’t work so well! … but it was a good lesson in knowing what to ask for.”

During these years of relocation and transition, she has been less prolific in her playwriting. This frightened her, but she’s starting to see the dip as a natural progression. “Part of it is just growing up,” she said. “I think I just got old enough to know that I don’t know everything.” She laughed at this, and then sobered. “My plays, which came out of this great sense of conviction, have to come from somewhere else, and I’ve had to grow into what that other place is.”

She’s even changed her look to mirror her rebirth of sorts. Last year, she cut off her waist-length dreadlocks. She went straight to the extreme opposite, to her current close-cropped cap of hair. The transformation was practical, as the heavy locks threatened to thin her hair, but also very symbolic.

“I’d had the locks for 20 years, and there was an almost frightening feeling of euphoria when I cut it all off,” she said. “Spiritually, there was something good about cutting off the last five years. It felt liberating to kind of start over.”

It struck her recently that at 41, she has already outgrown her protagonists. So she’s revising her mission to match that reality. “I want to put grown-up black women on stage with really meaty stuff to play — sexy, complicated, flawed, funny,” she said. “We have amazing women who happen to be over 40 and I want to write some roles for them.”