The Obie Award-winning The Fire This Time Festival, a showcase of "early-career playwrights of African and African American descent," has returned to the East Village for its seventh iteration. Its 10-minute play festival features a strong slate of seven new short plays that demonstrate the festival's mission statement, that "[t]he African American experience is not represented...by one voice or one style," with tremendous impact.
The opening piece is clarity, by Korde Arrington Tuttle. An often-poetic monologue, clarity is spoken by Georgia resident Cameron, read on opening night by the playwright himself, in anticipation of his wedding. As he discusses his relationship with the man whom he loves, Cameron touches on the competing complexities of individual, familial, and racial identities. His refrain of "just to be clear" echoes his own search for clarity in these matters, as well as his desires both for "a love attached to history" and to feel himself outside of that history. The ability to breathe (or not), introduced through Cameron’s sexual proclivities, bookends the piece, becoming an apt metaphor for his inner struggles.
Time at the Penn, by multi-disciplinary artist Keelay Gipson, is the best in a compelling group of plays. During a spell of Netflix ennui, KG (Tanisha Thompson) stumbles upon Happy Valley, a documentary about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. She draws perhaps unexpected but powerful parallels between the Penn State crimes and their aftermath and the protests of police abuses of power in Baltimore and elsewhere and the Black Lives Matter movement. Penn State students rioted in response to the perceived attack on their sports hero, and have rioted before for reasons such as winning a game against a rival school. Time at the Penn points to the differences (some of them enacted by other cast members when KG hits play on her remote control) in how these instances of "lashing out" in the face of excessive emotion are covered and discussed, even by those within the groups concerned, in very different terms when the story is about black protesters instead of state college students. Gipson's intensely affecting piece incisively questions our response to systemic abuses of power, as well as the willful blindness that seems to be an inescapable component of that response.
God Will Know the Difference, by Jiréh Breon Holder, returns to the issue of individual identity. This time, a son (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) tries to establish where he came from, to establish what he should see when he looks in the mirror. The writing and staging effectively reaches back to before the son was even conceived and forward to his present with overlapping times and conversations. As part of this fluid staging, the actors don't often speak to one another, which makes it all the more effective when, for example, the mother (Kayla Jackmon) and the father (Alex Ubokudom) have an up-close exchange while holding direct eye contact.
Pr$de, by Tanya Everett, begins with Nefertiti (Mandi Masden) dancing infectiously to the Tina Turner song playing on her laptop as she cleans. Shortly, her unemployed significant other Joseph (Alex Ubokudom) receives a phone call for a job interview. As the two are celebrating, their roommate Melody (Lori Elizabeth Parquet) arrives. There are tensions between Joseph and Melody, but what brings a sharp change to the atmosphere is Joseph’s response, unprecedented in their relationship, to a mistake by Nefertiti. This in turn creates a striking contrast to the sweet, funny, believable intimacy that Masden and Ubokudom create between Nefertiti and Joseph in the early going, and it brings to the surface questions of insecurity and self-worth affecting both characters and reinforced at the end, appropriately, with words from the song "Miss Cele’s Blues."
Slavesperience, by Stacey Rose, is the most conceptual of the group, and it pulls no punches in following through on that concept. Paris (Kareem M. Lucas) and Franny (Tanisha Thompson) stop Jenny (Erika Grob), who is white, outside a club where her 30th birthday party awaits her. They tell her that they work for Blacksperience and are there to provide her with an authentic slave experience. They remain unpersuaded by Jenny’s various self-justifications and protestations that she "gets it," and, without giving anything away, we can say that her experience is indeed rigorously authentic. The analogical set-up of the play highlights its tragedy, and it is likely to stick with the audience.
Hard Palate, by Roger Q.Mason, touches on some of the same themes of insecurity as Pr$de and some of the same sexual-racial politics as clarity. Like Jenny in Slavesperience, Quentin (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) is looking to celebrate his birthday. Unlike her, he is doing this not by attending a party but by meeting up with the more traditionally masculine rapper Clayton (Kareem M. Lucas) , whom he met on a hookup app. As he prepares for his date, a white woman whom he calls Brooke Shields (Erika Grob) gives skeptical voice to his various fears. Clayton and Quentin's date starts off well nevertheless, but Quentin's desire to definitively overcome his fears and one of Clayton’s own personal issues call into question whether these two men will be able to maintain their connection by the end of the play.
You Mine, by Nia Ostrow Witherspoon, closes the program in outstanding fashion. Nineteen-year-old mother Sayida Abdul (Kayla Jackman) works in a nursing home, where she was tasked with caring for elderly dementia patient Mrs. Anderson (Lori Elizabeth Parquet), who addresses her as Sable, her slave. When we first meet Sayida, she is being interrogated by an officer (Tanisha Thompson) who, like Mrs. Anderson, is played in whiteface, about why she abused her patient. As the story unfolds, past and present crash into one another, and the play posits that acting something has the power to make it true, much as the investigator says, more than once, that the courts want believable, not true. You Mine builds to a potent climax, and then ends more quietly on a metaphor that could sum up much of the evening.
The Fire This Time Festival has again assembled an excellent selection of new short plays that often complement one another while retaining unique voices and viewpoints. The cast members do great work as they reappear in different guises from play to play, and we highly recommend this show as a chance to see the work of these phenomenal playwrights. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.