Review: 'Flex' brings hoops and dreams to life at Penumbra Theatre

Forget high fives, daps and celebratory chest thumps. Have you seen athletes jump to bump pregnant-seeming bellies?

It happens in a funny but telling moment in Candrice Jones' hoops-themed play "Flex," which opened Thursday at Penumbra Theatre. The ballers in the story are spirited members of Lady Train, a high school team that practices on a dirt court in small town Arkansas.

Although they are eager to bring the nitty gritty to the big bad city, they have challenges that most viewers do not ever consider, including being sidelined by pregnancy. Their coach, Francine Pace (the always reliable Regina Marie Williams), has a hard rule. Those expecting are off the squad. So, when April Jenkins (empathetic Aubree Chanel Dixon) gets pregnant, her teammates pad their stomachs in practice to show the coach that they can all play that way, even if the whole team looks like they're having babies.

Jones' layered and smart play brings youth, vitality and freshness to the venerable St. Paul stage. The playwright has a great ear for dialogue and captures the idioms of young people whose dreams are colliding with reality circa 1998 just as the WNBA is starting.

Like "The Wolves," Sarah DeLappe's soccer-themed drama about powerful athletic young women facing challenges, "Flex" has some hypnotic elements as the company of actor-athletes gets into rhythm. In fact, Tiffany Nichole Greene's lyrical production, aided by the sound design of Theo Langason on Ruben Arana-Downs' rotating court set, occasionally feels less like an expertly choreographed simulacrum of sport onstage and more like the real thing.

The ensemble performs with knowing intimacy and edge. That's especially true of Eboni Edwards, who plays Starra Jones, the star player who gets carried away with herself on the court and who feels threatened by the arrival of talented California newcomer Sydney Brown (Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle). Starra is vexingly stubborn even if that's the source of her strength, and Edwards plays the role with confident slyness. Kiwanuka-Woernle brings a breezy assurance to her California transplant.

The cast has good conditioning as they riff through dialogue while doing drills. Importantly, you cannot hear any of their work in their breathing. Greene worked with Hall of Fame girls' basketball coach Faith Johnson Patterson and Tommy Franklin, a member of the Lynx practice squad, to get the cast looking and passing like real ballers.

There are other issues affecting the chemistry and lives of the Lady Train. One teammate, Cherise Howard (Tyra Lee Ramsey), is a devout Christian who may have feelings for a teammate but fervently wishes to "pray the gay away." Charlotte McDaniel is efficient as quiet but powerful go-along, get-along player Donna Cunningham.

Jones' playwriting, which also has fun with sex education, tracks with a popular advice from coaches, and that is players must have short memories in the game, especially when meeting setbacks. Both Greene and her actors honor this approach in a show that pivots deftly from scene to scene and from drama to humor.

"Flex" handles heavy subjects with such a light touch, the show feels like one of those basketballs being passed effortlessly onstage between the players. Ever so smoothly, they bounce to the net for a winning score.


Who: By Candrice Jones. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Green.

Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends May 19.

Tickets: $45. 651-224-3180,