Very short plays are at their most effective when they enter into and add to an existing conversation, and the plays that comprise the Sixth Annual The Fire This Time Festival recognize this. The festival exists as “a platform for talented early-career playwrights of African and African American descent to … move beyond common ideas of what’s possible in ‘black theater’” to demonstrate that “[t]he African American experience is not represented solely by one voice or one style,” and the seven voices that stage these short pieces--this year each inspired by the photographs of Alex Harsley of the 4th Street Photo Gallery, just down the street from the theater and itself worth a visit -- give expression to the diversity of the American experience of people of color in a way that is both particular and inextricable from current (and often longstanding) social flashpoints.
The festival starts strong, with playwright James A. Tyler’s Dolphins and Sharks, directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, a look inside a Harlem copy shop where workers are paid more than the federal minimum wage but not what they actually need to sustain themselves and their families. Recent NYU graduate Yusuf (Phillip J. Lewis) tries to encourage his co-worker Isabel (Pernell Walker) and, ultimately, their manager-in-name-only Xiomara (Analisa Velez) to join him in the fight for a living wage. First responding to Yusuf’s demands with reminders about professionalism, Xiomara eventually reveals that her title is worth nothing but an extra dollar an hour, and that all decisions about the copy shop are in the hands of the owner, an elderly white man; this revelation and the play itself are poignant reminders of power imbalance and a rallying cry for the exploited, who could band together, like dolphins do, to defeat the sharks. Yusef addresses a final "Are we just gonna sit back and accept this?" to the audience, implicating all of us in the complacency necessary to the success of capitalism's divide-and-conquer mechanisms.
Azure D. Osborne-Lee’s The Sandbox, directed by Jamal Jordan, offers a brief glimpse into a matriarchal world where secrets are seen as poisonous. Big sister June (Kelly Erin Sloan) and her little sister Jelly (Kirya Yvonne Traber, who plays a believable child with the wisdom of an adult) are in their yard, searching for tigers in the jungle, or maybe the desert, using binoculars made of toilet paper rolls, when Neale (Lori E. Parquet) appears, there ostensibly to drop off laundry but really to see June. The real and imagined collide when the girls fight over possession of June’s love note from Neale and Jelly’s “binoculars,” summoning Granny (Suzanne Darrell) from indoors to deliver her thoughts about secrets in a series of increasingly fearsome metaphors, before revealing, in an unexpected and sweetly touching reversal, a more layered attitude towards June's secrets.
A more contentious instance of intergenerational communication underpins Easy to Fall in Love, written by Larry Powell and directed by Tonya Pinkins and T.J. Weaver; after a long night out, Bobby (Jaquay Thomas) is coaxed seemingly at random into his first-ever shoeshine, by Greg (Brian D. Coates), who announces that Bobby’s first is his last. That shoeshine and the 28 years of its antecedents become part of a resonant cluster of images of guilt, debt, and addiction that includes Bobby's shoes themselves. Bobby's closing moments onstage, and their relationship to cycles and effects of abandonment, are ambiguous and their interpretation tied to the symbolic weight of the shoeshine box that he now holds.
Another look at family is presented in Not in This Room, by Daaimah Mubashshir and directed by Kimille Howard. When Abdullah brings his new wife Nedra home to the house that he says his recently deceased father promised to him, he is disturbed to find that his mother, Fatimah (Chinai J. Hardy), has turned the prayer room into the dining room. When he learns that she has also opened her home to his twin sister, Jamillah (Toni Ann De Noble), who was evicted by their father years ago because of whom she loved, he sees himself as the patriarch and expects his wife to support him and his mother to give in to his refusal. The women instead join forces to deconstruct the religious justifications that he provides for Jamillah’s banishment and patriarchal dominance over the house, in a wildly entertaining and inspiring show of female solidarity, love, and family.
The Marriage of Zoltar, or Rollercoaster: Your Love, written and directed by Rod Gailes OBC, takes the audience on a fifth-anniversary date to Coney Island, during which one man doesn't get the answer he is looking for when he proposes. The failure of his plan becomes an occasion to examine the differences between "needing" and "wanting" someone and between knowing what you want and having the courage to act on that knowledge. Ago Akinsanya turns in a hilarious, spot-on imitation of a Zoltar machine, Jackson Thompson and Marchelle Thurman keep the bickering couple sympathetic, and Roger Yeh creates a tender moment that gives one character a chance to act on authentic wanting.
The greatest strength of A Military Habit, by Aziza Barnes (directed by Dennis A. Allen II), is the energizing naturalism and rhythm of the back-and-forth between twin sisters (Mahlaney Wilson and Crystal M. Valentine), one of whom believes that she has found their father and the other having known who he is but not cared for years. The Veteran's Day conversation between the sisters touches on many of the same themes of family and abandonment as Easy to Fall in Love, at one point through a timely takedown of "perfect father" Bill Cosby. Through all of the disagreements about whether shoeshining is a real career and whether to visit their former soldier father, Wilson and Valentine excellently ensure that the sisters' bond shines through.
The final play of the festival, Coal Run Road, (written by Julienne Hairston and directed by Tasha Gordon-Solmon) is the only one explicitly set neither in NYC nor the present day, but it is nevertheless perhaps the most significant statement about the city in 2015. Pop star Caleb (Roger Casey) has returned to his impoverished rural hometown in what seems to be the early 1970s in order to receive the symbolic keys to a town in which running water and other amenities stop at the edge of the Black community. Trailed by a starstruck young boy played by Brandon Parks, he encounters a former bandmate, Lynn (Ugo Chukwu), shining shoes (a recurring motif in the Festival) and instigating revolution. Lynn's belief that the social system is "designed to keep you a failure" echoes Yusef's concerns in Dolphins and Sharks, nicely bookending the festival. As debate rages over the responsibility of the (wealthy) individual to the community, the police descend, and debate gives way to gunshots and darkness.
With perhaps the exception of Zoltar, while we want more of these characters and their lives, the glimpses we get and the arguments they promote fully achieve their ends. Plays of this length are tasked with a tiny window in which to establish and draw spectators into their worlds, and it is entirely a compliment that they all felt much longer than their allotted ten minutes. - Leah Richard and John Ziegler