Review: After a Too-Long Absence, The Fire This Time Festival Reignites

The Fire This Time Festival: Season 13: Ten-Minute Plays

Plays by Fedna Jacquet, Marcus Scott, Phillip Christian Smith, Lisa Rosetta Strum, Rachel Herron, and Agyeiwaa Asante

Directed by Zhailon Levingston and Tracey Conyer Lee

Presented by FRIGID New York at The Kraine Theater

85 E 4th St., Manhattan, NYC

July 7-10, 2022

Anthony Goss & Ricardy Fabre in Wookiees in the Wilderness. Photo by Garlia Jones
The annual The Fire This Time Festival, after a two-year absence from the stage, including a postponement from its usual winter slot to early July, has returned to in-person performance with its thirteenth season, bringing six new short plays from early-career playwrights of African and African American descent to The Kraine Theater. The Ten-Minute Play Program offers both in-person and livestreaming options, and this year, audiences can also complement their theatergoing experience by picking up a copy of 25 Plays from the Fire This Time Festival, which collects plays from TFTT's first eleven seasons, edited by TFTT founder and Executive Director Kelley Nicole Girod and organized into thematic groupings from policing to gentrification to Black love. If further volumes are forthcoming, any of this year's thoughtful, funny, provocative, compassionate offerings would be a worthy addition. Meanwhile, just get thee to the Kraine!
Denise Manning in Girlfriend. Photo by Garlia Jones
First up is Fedna Jacquet's Girlfriend, which sees longtime friends Lea (played by Jacquet) and Tonya (Denise Manning) having drinks together for the first time in a long time, a fact related to Tonya's now-defunct romantic relationship. Talking about the reason for Tonya's break-up (spurred, it's worth noting, by a visit to the theater) leads the two women into a consideration of how attempts to police their identities and define their experiences come not only from the expected quarters. A moment when Lea (rightly) calls out Tonya feels (also rightly) like a short, sharp shock amidst the humorous, supportive interplay between the two women. Friendships anchor several of this year's plays, and Marcus Scott's Wookiees in the Wilderness follows Girlfriend's female pairing with a pair of close male friends. High-schooler Smokey (Anthony Goss) needs more practice in archery and riflery in order to pass the Eagle Scouts' Wilderness Survival Test before he sets off for college, and, to that end, he meets Bishop (Ricardy Fabre) in the wilderness near the Lake of the Ozarks. At first, the two vividly drawn and portrayed friends fall into a debate about race and Star Wars that includes Bishop's memorable claim that "Chewbacca might as well be a Somali pirate in space" (and yes, there are lightsabers). When their talk turns to an incident with more than a passing resemblance to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Bishop's early declaration that there is more to sci fi than just Star Wars looks like foreshadowing of the profound decision that Smokey puts before Bishop about alternate modes of action (or perhaps of rebellion, in Star Wars parlance) and whether they are justified and effective.
Patricia R. Floyd & Marjorie Johnson in Mount Sinai. Photo by Garlia Jones
The third play, Phillip Christian Smith's Mount Sinai, is more (straightforwardly) uplifting, despite its friends being fellow cancer patients. Gladys (Marjorie Johnson) says that she has always been a "good girl," having worked her way up to a successful career and raised successful children, while Minerva (Patricia R. Floyd) characterizes herself as a "card" and, in a small echo of the identity issues raised in Girlfriend, has never been able to get anyone to call her by her given name rather than a nickname. Among other topics, the women, in lived-in performances by Johnson and Floyd, touch on the pandemic (Minerva observes that "essential workers" means "Black people") and its losses, but ultimately the play suggests that, despite challenges including aging and illness, there is always more to enjoy in life. The pandemic frames a more urgent search for happiness in Lisa Rosetta Strum's By the way…, which checks in on two close friends (Fenda Jacquet and Ricardy Fabre) who have been quarantined together for a month in 2020. Quarantining of course involves drinking and game playing, which come together here for a confessional game. That game brings a revelation which challenges both the preconceptions of one of the duo (again, about identity) as well as the status quo of their relationship, as Jacquet and Fabre skillfully trade tipsy fun for unvarnished intensity.
Fedna Jacquet & Ricardy Fabre in By the way.... Photo by Garlia Jones
The very funny and slightly dark Red Red Wine, by Rachel Herron, shifts the confessions to a work environment. Mel (Denise Manning) is working for Somm (Patricia R. Floyd) in the latter's wine shop while being mentored as a potential Master Sommelier. Mel would be the first Black woman to achieve this rank, but only because Somm quit while practicing for the exam. After Mel reveals some things about herself that recall the issues raised in the previous play, she wants Somm to explain in exchange why she quit; and Somm's answer puts before Mel a decision that is not unlike the one that Bishop has to make in Wookiees in the Wilderness. Wrapping up this year's program is Agyeiwaa Asante's Wildest Dreams, in which the ghosts of the past are literal. Spirits Maybelle (Marjorie Johnson) and Jimmy Dale (Anthony Goss) have not yet moved on from the plantation where they died of unnatural causes 187 years ago, a location now used for events such as weddings or, on this day, a graduation. A sign held by a Black graduate reading "I am my ancestors' wildest dreams" prompts some soul-searching, so to speak, for the pair and ultimately asks when one person has done enough–how much right does someone have to personal peace when the unfinished business is social progress? Wildest Dreams closes these questions–and the evening–on a hauntingly ambiguous note.

The 13th season of The Fire This Time finds the festival's programming as strong as ever. With 6 compelling shows brought to life by 6 talented actors, The Fire This Time Festival proves that 13 is not an unlucky number.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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