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Penumbra’s “Flex” shoots - and scores - for female empowerment

A team of five female basketball players stand in a row on the court, wearing their uniforms. Their coach, a Black woman, stands next to them, dressed all in black.
The cast of Penumbra Theatre's production of "Flex" by Candrice Jones. (Photo Credit: Caroline Yang)

Penumbra Theatre’s production “Flex” tells a story of basketball dreams, teen pregnancy, and sisterhood. Written by Candice Jones and directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, the play takes place in 1997, during the Women’s National Basketball Association’s first season. The production’s run coincided with another historic moment - this year’s WNBA draft became the most-watched in history with 2.4 million viewers, a 307% increase over 2023. 

The play is about five high school basketball teammates in rural Arkansas who, despite personal struggles, are pushing to get their team to the championship and land Division I college scholarships. 

“What's beautiful is this is the first time that high school girls could look forward to having a professional career in basketball,” said Penumbra Theater Senior Marketing Manager Tiffany Johnson. “But there's so much more to the narrative. It speaks to friendship and speaks to camaraderie. It's very much a coming-of-age tale. It brings up a lot of issues that high schoolers and high school young women will go through. And so there's a lot of themes that this play, and that the context of basketball actually helps to uplift and come alive.”

A young Black woman dribbles a basketball on the court, with a facial expression that conveys that she is happy and confident.
Eboni Edwards is Starra Jones in Penumbra Theatre's production of "Flex" (Photo credit: Caroline Yang)

The story offers insight into what sportsmanship looks like amongst women. The high school teammates wrestle with abortion, sexuality, and sex education, but Jones’ dialog keeps it funny and playful. When player April Jenkins (played by Aubree Chanel Dixon) becomes pregnant, her fellow teammates give themselves mock baby bellies in solidarity, to protect her from losing her spot on her team. 

The play reveals what women face in traditionally male settings, and how teamwork can help to overcome challenges. 

“Seeing these girls fight to get to the championship is really inspirational. But also seeing these girls fight through their relationships, I also think is really beautiful,” said Johnson.

As a woman of color who played basketball in high school, I connected easily to the story. Beyond basketball, I found the play’s critique of hyper-independence refreshing. The conversation between Donna Cunningham (played by Charlotte McDaniel) and Cherise Howard (played by Tyra Lee Ramsey), who was battling with her Christianity and her newfound attraction to a woman, inspired me to consider the ways I might better show up for a friend dealing with something difficult. “Flex” serves as a reminder that isolation is often the source of struggle. 

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