NEW YORK - In the sleek restaurant of a boutique hotel a few blocks from the Cort Theatre, the Broadway house where her name is emblazoned on the marquee, Lydia R. Diamond looked over the breakfast menu with a careful eye on cost. Though someone else was picking up the check, she was on guard against ordering extravagantly.
“It’s a Pavlovian response to hotel prices,’’ she said, having settled at last on a bacon and cheddar omelet. “And I spend so much time in hotels, it just makes me crazy.’’
Diamond, who is 42, travels a lot as a playwright. Lately she has been shuttling between New York, where her comedy “Stick Fly’’ began previews Friday, and Cambridge, where she lives with her husband, John, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and their 7-year-old son, Baylor. Opening night for the play, Diamond’s Broadway debut, is Dec. 8.
The biggest hit of the season when the Huntington Theatre Company produced it in early 2010, “Stick Fly’’ is set on Martha’s Vineyard, in the vacation home of a wealthy black family. Race and class are prominent themes of the play, in which two grown sons, Kent (played on Broadway by Dulé Hill) and Flip (Mekhi Phifer), bring women home to meet their parents.
Kent’s entomologist fiancée, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), was raised by her single mother, a college professor, and is intimidated by the affluence of a household equipped with a maid (Condola Rashad). Flip’s girlfriend, Kimber (Rosie Benton), is well-off but white, which creates friction of its own. So does the fact that Kent and Flip’s neurosurgeon father (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) arrives without their mother.
It is, Diamond said, her most accessible work - one that she beganwhile working on her 2006 play “Voyeurs de Venus,’’ which was “a really, really sad play to write,’’ she said. “And I wanted a little something to ground me in happiness.’’
But two things became clear to Diamond as she wrote “Stick Fly’’: She’d underestimated the difficulty of crafting a traditional well-made play, and she’d overestimated her ability to write something that was purely lighthearted.
“Thematically, this play that was going to be my fun, frivolous play still had the things that I feel passionately about and the big questions, societal questions, that I have,’’ said Diamond, a former Huntington Playwriting Fellow who is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Theatre. “Things that perplex me always land in the plays.’’
Shepherding “Stick Fly’’ on Broadway is director Kenny Leon. He helmed the Huntington’s coproduction with Washington’s Arena Stage, and he also produced the play in 2007 at True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, where he is the artistic director.
“It’s a melodramatic play, and there’s good melodrama and there’s bad melodrama. So a bad production of this play causes actors to step into the bad side of melodrama,’’ Leon said by phone. “But what we’re able to do now is make three-dimensional, well-rounded characters that have now come up to Lydia’s writing. So when you have actors that can be on the same level that her writing is, then the melodrama comes off as beautiful and as a positive thing.’’
It was Leon’s connection with Alicia Keys, whose world tour he stage-directed in 2008, that led the musician to become a Broadway “Stick Fly’’ producer, one of about a dozen, including the Huntington. Keys has also composed music to be played in transitions between scenes.
With “The Mountaintop,’’ Katori Hall’s play about Martin Luther King Jr., which opened last month, and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ which begins previews next month, “Stick Fly’’ is part of a Broadway trend this season. All three productions have largely black casts and present the work of black female playwrights. (Suzan-Lori Parks adapted the book of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ which is directed by Diane Paulus and opened at American Repertory Theater in August.)
That makes this an unusual moment for Broadway, where black theatergoers were 3.4 percent of the audience in the 2009-10 season, according to the Broadway League, an industry group. Leon, who is also the director of “The Mountaintop,’’ said audiences at that play have been about “50-50,’’ a mix of black and white. And Peter DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director, said he saw a significant increase in the number of black audience members during the “Stick Fly’’ run - a development in keeping with his goal “to make our theater look more like our city.’’
Diamond believes, however, that class is even harder than race for Americans to talk about because they tend to deny that class differences exist, and to believe that hard work always translates into economic success.
Like Taylor, her character, Diamond was raised by a single mother who was an academic. Born in Detroit, Diamond spent her childhood in various college towns, then moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University. Until relocating to Boston for her husband’s job seven years ago, Diamond had spent her entire adult life in Chicago, where in her 20s she founded a company she dubbed Another Small Black Theatre Company With Good Things to Say and a Lot of Nerve Productions.
Nearly two decades later, over breakfast at her hotel, Diamond cut an elegant figure, with a chic teal cowl-neck sweater layered atop an otherwise all-black outfit. Silver hoop earrings dangled from her ears. But she cautioned a reporter against drawing any conclusions about class based on her appearance.
“Taylor, in ‘Stick Fly,’ would probably look like me if she were having an interview with you, but she would definitely identify herself as lower middle class. And that’s what’s so slippery about class,’’ she said. “I’m not saying that I don’t acknowledge that just in hard, cold numbers, my family’s doing OK. We’re doing well. And I would in no way consider us . . . wealthy.’’
Broadway, where ticket prices routinely top $100, is a magnet for the affluent: In 2009-10, according to the Broadway League, 57 percent of theatergoers had an annual household income of $100,000 or above, though that income level comprises 20.2 percent of the US population. People with household incomes under $50,000, 49.6 percent of the population, made up 16.9 percent of Broadway audiences.
“We have to acknowledge that theater has been largely elitist,’’ Diamond said. “But what we forget is that there are people who are so passionately invested in theater that they save their money and they come. They don’t go to 10 movies, and they come to the theater. And those are the people we forget about all the time. And dismiss.’’
Likewise, she said, producers have frequently assumed that black audiences won’t buy tickets - a belief that the current crop of shows is challenging.
“Everyone says, ‘What does this moment mean?’ ’’ Diamond said. “I think partially it means that we’re starting to understand that people of color also have money that they will spend on theater. The commercial viability of everyone’s story - it’s important.’’