I waited until late in the run of Flex to speak with Christiana Clark, who portrays Francine Pace, the coach of the play’s high school girls basketball team. She is the self-described “grown-up in the room,” and thus has a slightly different perspective than the drama’s other actors, who are younger. “She wants the girls to be able to confide in her,” Clark said of the coach, “but she knows that she can’t always be a keeper of their secrets – she has to be aware of what the girls’ families might think.”
Clark said that any coach is “part of the team and yet outside the team.” For perspective on that dynamic, she consulted her own sister. “She’s a high-school volleyball coach and has insight into the balance between when a coach has to be sympathetic and when a coach has to instill discipline.” An experienced coach, Clark went on to explain, is aware of the impact she can have on the arc of a young woman’s life. “When you’re 17,” she said, “even the smallest thing can seem large. So the ways in which a coach can influence whether a player makes it to college, or gets a scholarship, can be monumental.”
Clark herself played volleyball and some basketball during a childhood in Chicago. “We were avid Bulls fans, at a time when Michael Jordan was the biggest thing anywhere.” From a lifetime of watching basketball, Clark had an awareness of how a coach behaves on the sidelines. “I knew that to create my character I would have to ground her in a believable way physically. So I gave her a certain focus. Not slow in her movement, but purposeful.”
Clark studied at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Los Angeles, and, from 2013 to 2020, was a member of the regular acting company at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “A couple of people I know from those years came to see Flex, and one of them said that when the coach tries to fire up the team it was my St. Crispin’s Day speech.”
With her historical training, Clark makes such comparisons easily. “Flex isn’t classical in the sense of language or in the sense of being about empires falling,” she observed. “But like any good drama, whether Elizabethan or contemporary, the high stakes are there.” Clark also has a sense of how Flex might potentially stand in the course of contemporary drama. “There haven’t been that many plays featuring young black women and their challenges. Even a playwright as great as August Wilson doesn’t deal with this group very much.” Clark added: “That’s why I think Flex will have a real life in future performance.”
I asked Clark whether the tensions among the play’s team members bled into interactions among the actors backstage. “Not at all,” she replied. “The actors bonded very quickly in rehearsal and we’ve carried that connection, in one way or another, into every performance.” And why did the ensemble cohere so quickly? “I hesitate to dip into the sports analogies,” Clark replied, “because at this point in the run they may seem used up. But the basic truth is that we all came ready to play.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.