Review: Roger Q. Mason Shines Brightly in The Fire This Time Alumni Spotlight

The Fire This Time Alumni Spotlight: Roger Q. Mason

Presented by The Fire This Time Festival in collaboration with FRIGID New York via Facebook and YouTube Live

November 24, 2020 live, and recording streaming on YouTube

This Thanksgiving week, when we are supposed to be thinking about what we are grateful for, and ideally also about the dark undersides of our national mythology, seems like a particularly fitting time for the first annual The Fire This Time Festival Alumni Spotlight. The Fire This Time (TFTT), founded in 2009, amplifies Black voices by showcasing the work of writers of the African diaspora through short plays, staged readings, and more. As well as a richly deserved celebration of Roger Q. Mason and his artistry, this inaugural Alumni Spotlight also acted as a fundraiser for TFTT: donations can be made via TFTT's website.

In addition to a sampling of Mason's corpus, the Spotlight featured reflections from a selection of other theater artists. TFTT Artistic Director Cezar Williams spoke briefly about the festival's mission, while playwright Lynn Nottage recalled Mason's time in her playwriting class at Princeton, his energy, imagination, and commitment to bringing queer BIPOC stories to the world. Performer L Morgan Lee talked about Mason's ability to build a true world and to approach the darker elements of his work from a place of love; and actor, playwright, and director Kevin R. Free discussed his collaboration as former TFTT Artistic Director with Mason, comparing him to a combination of canonical luminaries.

Before any of this, though, the program began with "He Needed Help," a new spoken word piece from Mason. Directed by Larry Powell, the piece takes the form here of a short film with a single, non-speaking character and a voice over, both performed by Mason. The "he" of the title is a morbidly obese man who, the blunt refrain of this evocative monlogue tells us, needs "real help," not to be preyed on by specialized clothing stores or told by yet another doctor to lose weight. The problems that his weight causes him, his work, and his sex life, are not merely physical, so why should the solutions be?

Roger Q. Mason. Credit: Sara Martin
The remainder of Mason's work that was presented is dramatic and introduced by the playwright, including some commentary on his early work with TFTT. 
Hard Palate, subtitled Some Queer Ass Drama in Three Moods and directed by Zhailon Levingston, is a tripartite short play that focuses on Quentin (Larry Owens, in a funny and vulnerable performance), whose anxieties, worries, and self-doubt manifest as a blond white woman whom he calls Brooke Shields (Gillian Williams). Quentin is less than experienced sexually, but he matches with Clayton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) on a dating app, and as their interactions move from phone conversations to meeting in person, with Brooke Shields reminding Quentin of the dangers at every step, one of the central questions becomes whether the freedom that Quentin is pursuing is the freedom that he really needs.

The final two dramatic selections were excerpts from full-length plays by Mason. The excerpt from The White Dress, directed by June Carryl, tracks a movement into connection and openness similar to that which we see play out in Hard Palate. Teenagers Jonathan (Adam Hyndman) and Winnie (Ianne Fields Stewart) are romantically involved and living together because Jonathan has left his parents and wants to be legally emancipated. Winnie is more fully inhabiting their nonbinary identity, and Jonathan wants to talk about these changes and about their relationship (while not sure what might be the wrong reactions), but Winnie deflects. Rendered with fine, emotionally genuine performances, their attempt to navigate this impasse is ultimately both tender and funny. Finally, there was an excerpt from The Duat, directed by Taibi Magar, in which a 20th-century man experiences the ancient Eyptian afterlife, in which his heart must be weighed in judgment (metaphorically and literally). In this excerpt, the man, Neal (a terrific Wayne Brady), narrates the death of his father in 1952 twice, once the sentimentally tragic story of a family man and once something more honest. What does not change is the terrible effects of segregation, no matter what kind of person one is.

A short "Chatting with Roger" segment, in which Mason described the aims of his work and characterized the theater as a place where we see ourselves, our struggles, and our fantasies reflected back to us, creating common ground, served as a segue into the talkback. The talkback, which brought Mason together with Larry Powell and Julius Powell, gave Mason space to expand on these ideas and much more. The entertaining and incisive conversation ranged from collaboration as communion, the importance of mentorship, and how projects are chosen to the need for more Black people in film and making theater during the pandemic as a form of making short films. Mason emphasized the importance of embracing discomfort, asking questions, and learning to the artistic process, as well as that any production merely captures a moment in that process; and he advocated for subverting both dramaturgical hierarchies and the conceptualization of art as the product of a singular writer.

In Mason, TFTT's first Alumni Spotlight highlights an artist of vitality, warmth, humor, and honesty whose work probes difficult, messy, and vital matters of self and identity. As this spotlight looks back over Mason's work, we look forward also to what's still to come.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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