Seventeen-year-old Starra Jones, the central character in Flex, is single-minded in her desire to succeed at basketball. Erica Matthews, who portrays Starra with energy and imagination, has pursued a career path less straightforward. “I grew up in Georgia,” Matthews told me. “I got a B.A. in education and taught middle school for five years.” Then she saw Beyond the Lights, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2014 feature film about a young woman striving to make it in popular music.
“I had a spiritual moment,” Matthews said. “I asked myself: what would I do if money were not a problem?” She decided on acting. “At first, I had no desire to go back to school. I took acting classes, once a week, in Atlanta – I studied with Victor Love.” Eventually, Matthews realized that since all the actors she most admired had MFA degrees that she would pursue one too.
“I was accepted into more than one program, but opted for the University of Washington. I decided on Seattle because it’s so different from Atlanta. I thought that the more I was taken out of my comfort zone the more I would learn.” Matthews spent her first year in Seattle in a regular in-person graduate program, but, owing to the pandemic, did her second year online. “It was challenging, to say the least. But I was lucky: shortly after getting my degree I booked Flex.”
Matthews did the play initially in Fayetteville, at the other end of Arkansas from where Flex takes place. Having now played Starra at LCT as well, Matthews has quite a lot to say about the character. “She craves attention. She got a lot of it growing up from her mother, because they both loved basketball. But her mother is gone now, and her father is overseas. And her grandmother works nights, so Starra can’t get much attention at home. She only gets it playing ball.”
Arrayed in self-confidence, Starra also, Matthews said, is vulnerable. “She’s very sensitive. That’s why she is so attuned to whether she’s the center of attention or not. She’s also passionate, capable of love. She’s upset with her teammate April for wanting an abortion, but can still think outside herself enough to help April out.”
Like Starra, Matthews cares about the actors on her team. “We really do get along. It feels like family. People who observe us say, ‘Oh my God, you all really love each other.’” This ensemble share the ups and downs of each day, and follow the regimen set down by director Lileana Blain-Cruz. “We still start our pre-show days doing breathing together,” Matthews said, “just as we did from the first rehearsal.” According to Matthews, Blain-Cruz made it clear “that we were here to work hard but we are also here to have fun together. That took some of the pressure off.”
Actors who do battle onstage have a “fight call” before the show; they go through the motions of their physical conflicts to ensure safety. The women in Flex have “ball call” every evening. “We go through aspects of our basketball play,” Matthews said. “We want to make sure our bodies are prepared for the show – we want to avoid unexpected injury.”
All the women in Flex have basketball in their histories: Matthews played in middle school and high school. “Even though I’m older now,” she said, “all the work I’ve done for the production has me playing better now than I’ve ever played.” Matthews has long loved the talent and determination of the late Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, and she said: “If Kobe were sitting in our audience I would want him to watch me and say, ‘She can play.’”
It isn’t only the opportunity to re-immerse herself in basketball that has Matthews grateful to play Starra. “She is so unapologetically herself. I didn’t think I’d ever see a young black woman this fearless onstage. To be able to do this right out of school is a dream come true.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.