The annual The Fire This Time Festival was begun by artists, for artists, and its purpose is to showcase early-career playwrights of the African diaspora. Traditionally, The Fire This Time has been composed of a variety of events, with the 10 Minute Play Festival serving as the flagship, and this year, its eighth, TFTT has expanded those events beyond the strictly theatrical, including web series and readings by playwrights and sisters Kia and Kara Lee Corthron from their respective debut novels. As an anchor to the festivities (and the only event that isn't free to attend), the The 10 Minute Play Festival has consistently put forth collections of strong, exciting work, and this year's group of seven short plays, performed by a group of seven actors, is no exception.
First up is Ain't No Mo, by Jordan E. Cooper. In this funny, powerful opening piece, Cooper himself plays the pastor of a church that is holding a funeral that coincides with the election of President Obama to his first term. The pastor at one point describes the day as "bittersweet," and the play itself mixes, to great effect, comedy (augmented by the rest of the 10 Minute Festival cast as congregants), irony (an irony that obliquely and cuttingly mocks assertions of a post-racial United States), and melancholy. The ironies in the pastor's invocation of the "dawn of equality" become more caustic as the play goes on and Cooper's pastor ratchets up his intensity, culminating in a heartbreaking juxtaposition of the present day, lent perhaps an extra edge of tragedy by the play's debut the night before the inauguration of Obama's successor.
Love and Happiness: Ada's Story, by Fredrica Bailey, fashions a snapshot of a pivotal moment in one couple's relationship. It is 1939, and Ada (Karen Chilton) tells her friend Charlene (Patrice Bell) about her plans to terminate her unexpected pregnancy, and Charlene argues Ada needs instead to tell the father, Hershel (Sidiki Fofana), who is 16 years Ada's junior. Ada capitulates to Charlene's urgings, which leads to Ada and Hershel negotiating the future of their relationship. Ada is comfortable with how her life was, cautious and skeptical because of their age difference, while her lover is full of youthful optimism and wants to move to New York to make it as a musician. Their conversation is, overwhelmingly, humorous and sweet, yet a final comment by Ada implies that things are far from resolved.
The third play in the rotation is Waiting for Virginia Wolfe, by Michelle Tyrene Johnson, which, as its title suggests, alludes to elements of both Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In Albee's 1962 play, a young couple, while the guests of an older couple, is drawn into the older couple's resentments and games with reality. Both husbands are university faculty, and Johnson's piece boasts a similar set up: a younger couple (Patrice Bell and Jordan E. Cooper) is invited to dinner by a professor of mathematics (Maurice McRae) and his wife, Portia (Karen Chilton). In this case, the get-together has been arranged around Harrison, the chair of the mathematics department, who holds the professor's advancement to tenured status in his hands. Of course, since Harrison is the Godot figure here, the couples spend their time fruitlessly awaiting his arrival, during which time conflicts blossom. The younger couple comes off as far less bourgeois, to use their term, than the professor and his wife, and the conflicts are initially harmlessly superficial -- R. Kelly or Dave Brubeck? The actors have a lot of fun with these contrasting lifestyles and attitudes, but it doesn't take long, however, before more serious conflicts surface at the intersections of race, class, and idea of authenticity, climaxing in the revelation that things here are very much not as they seem.
C.A. Johnson's entry, The Fucking World and Everything In It, returns us to a political area similar to that of Ain't No Mo. Sidiki Fofana plays Terrence, a young man who has been arrested by a white police officer (Txai Frota) for, Terrence insists, nothing more than drinking a Coke on the corner with his friend. There are references to an incident whose details we never learn, but, given the officer's comments on how a Coke can look just like a gun, we can certainly make a solid guess. These two men's interaction operates as a synecdoche for sometimes seemingly impassable gulf in perspectives between those doing the policing and those being policed, as if each side were living in separate realities; where Terrence sees some friends waiting for sandwiches, the officer see packs of roving enemies. Frota's performance walks the officer to edge of being sympathetic several times and then back again, but as the play's bleakly effective ending makes clear, only one of these narratives will become the official one, based not on its adherence to reality but on whose narrative it is.
This police-policed dynamic is not dissimilar to the military-detainee dynamic explored in Shamar S. White's Detained. Two American soldiers (Patrice Bell and Txai Frota), one female and one male, are completing a patrol in Afghanistan and come upon a young Afghan woman (Eliana Pipes) inside a building. As the female soldier confronts this woman, the play draws parallels between foreign and domestic injustice. As an American woman of color, the soldier is sexually harassed and called "brown sugar" by her white male comrade-in-arms, but she in turn works for a government that perpetrates civilian casualties on people seen as Other and then pays reparations (a loaded word in this context) for family members who have been killed. Detained asks us to recognize that both women are being compelled by their respective situations to "be who they are not," and its unexpected coda shows us the effects of that constraint on one of them.
Stiletto Envy, by Eliana Pipes, takes us from America's war on terrorism to an intimate example of its culture wars. High-schooler Sean (Jordan E. Cooper) has asked Melanie (Eliana Pipes) to meet him at a known hook-up spot, which makes Melanie worry that her "old-fashioned" family will hear about it and think that something is going on. We soon learn, however, that the purpose of the rendezvous is not romantic but rather so that Sean, who identifies as a gender-nonconforming pansexual, can teach his friend since childhood to walk in heels before prom. This skill, to her, would publicly signify her womanhood, and the play questions our social constructions of what it means to be a "woman," or to be "masculine," especially when Sean reveals that romance is not off the table after all. As both characters deal with this revelation, Pipes affectingly expresses Melanie's inner conflict, and Cooper as Sean deftly balances confidence and vulnerability, and humor and earnestness, and executes an excellent runway strut in intimidatingly high stiletto heels.
The program closes as strong as it opens, with SWITCH!, by Karen Chilton, which finds psychiatrist Guy (Maurice McRae) unintentionally booking an appointment with friend and fellow psychiatrist Joan (Karen Chilton), whom he had been avoiding, because of a change in her last name. Guy had abandoned Joan after the suicide of their mutual friend Cat, and their accidental reunion spurs the two analysts to turn their training on one another and on their friendship. McCrae and Chilton put on an acting showcase as Guy and Joan probe, accuse, and confess, digging into how they feel about themselves as well as about one another, and with their relative positioning onstage providing a running commentary on their interactions.
Taken as a whole, these seven short plays are timely, funny, poignant, and impressively acted. If you want to experience some excellent theater, let The Fire This Time 10 Minute Play Festival provide some welcome light in what may feel right now like dark times. - Leah Richard and John Ziegler