Review: New Location, Same Excellence for the 15th The Fire This Time Festival

The Fire This Time Festival: Season 15: Ten-Minute Plays

Ethel & Ethel, by Joël René Scoville; Mamas & Papas, by Kamilah Bush; What's Love Got to Do With It?, by LeeLee Jackson; Why Jamira Gotta Do All Da Werk?, by Nia Akilah Robinson; It's Karen B****!, by Taylor A. Blackman; The Mural, by Monique Pappas-Williams

Directed by Cezar Williams

Presented in collaboration with FRIGID New York at the wild project

195 E. 3rd St., Manhattan, NYC

January 15-28, 2024

Marinda Anderson and Danielle Covington in Ethel & Ethel. Photo by Garlia Jones
2024 marks not only the fifteenth year of The Fire This Time Festival, which showcases "early career playwrights of African and African-American descent," but also a move south and east from the festival's longtime home at the Kraine Theater to the wild project, where audiences can experience an exhibition of paintings by multidisciplinary artist Moses Harper in the lobby prior to the show (or the festival's fundraiser and screening of its 14th season, recorded by PBS All ARTS, on the 21st and panel discussion on the 22nd). Among this year's program of equally penetrating and entertaining short plays, most of which infuse their explorations with liberal doses of comedy, one might discern a throughline of people attempting, in the face of painful loneliness and alienation, to forge connection(s) and to find their place in the world.

As a sort of prologue to the program of ten-minute plays, special musical guest Nailah Carrie, a singer-songwriter and poet, accompanied on guitar by Julian Apter, enchanted the audience with a Prince cover and an original titled "Bad Girl." The latter song's evocation of an uncertain romantic relationship provides in some ways an apt transition into the first short play, Joël René Scoville's Ethel & Ethel. Set in 1920s Harlem, Ethel & Ethel finds one of the titular Ethels, a dancer surnamed Williams (Danielle Covington), preparing her apartment for a visit from her coworker, jazz/blues singer Ethel Waters (Marinda Anderson). As the former Ethel plies the latter with cold cuts and a cocktail, it becomes clear that her eagerness to please is connected to a relationship between the two women that is more than professional. Both Ethels were real people–Ethel Waters's achievements included being the first Black performer to star in her own television show, a 1939 variety special called The Ethel Waters Show–and the play explores the dynamics of their romance, also a historical fact. Contrasts between the two women, particularly in their attitudes and approaches to their clandestine relationship, generate some humorously awkward moments, the sweetness of which does not obviate the very real dangers that lead Ethel Waters to, for instance, to worry about being seen coming to Ethel Williams's apartment and to insist on the inevitability of capitulation to an imposed heteronormativity. In playing out these negotiations of their relationship, Anderson imbues Waters with an expressive laugh and a guarded receptivity that nicely balances Covington's winning embodiment of Williams's insistence on committing to and enjoying the present moment.

Mamas & Papas, by Kamilah Bush, brings us forward to the 1970s, a time of widespread challenge to dominant gender and sexual norms. The play begins with another woman who doesn't want to be seen entering a residence, but this time it is 16-year-old Dot (Shayvawn Webster) sneaking home after being out until the small hours of the morning–and planning to go out again. Dot is staying at the home of Charles (Benton Greene), who wants, so far ineffectually, to enforce some rules, which Dot asserts are only "for people who need to be taken care of" and thus not for her. After Dot leaves, against Charles's wishes, Billy (Larry Powell) comes over (also against Charles's wishes), and the two end up hashing out, with funny and sensitive performances on both sides, not only how Charles's (lack of) authority fits into the larger complications of their desire for a closer relationship with Dot but also what Billy sees as Charles's embrace of suffering and erasure of both Billy and a man named Phillip from the part of Charles's world that includes Dot. What emerges in the process, while not without conflict and anxiety, affirms the strength and love to be found in queerness and in queer forms of the family.
LeeLee Jackson's What's Love Got to Do With It? finds another character driven to live her own truth, but the relationship at the play's center fares less well. The play opens with a woman (Danielle Covington) in bed with her man (Benton Greene). Although the latter is quite pleased with how their erotic encounter plays out, cheerfully exiting for a post-sex pee and canceling their plans to go out in favor of ordering delivery, his partner is less satisfied with both the experience and its aftermath–and lets him know it. It is not merely their sex life that is a problem for her, however: she explains, against his protestations, that him being a good man (and good looking) is not good enough. Covington adroitly conveys both the woman's assertive resolve and the moments when it is in danger of cracking, and Greene makes the man's often misguided attempts to persuade the woman to stay with him very funny, even though the various common strategies of trying to 'keep' someone which he demonstrates are not in themselves humorous (and even overlap with strategies of control used by less good men), which perhaps works to undermine some of their power; and the couple's remaining unnamed encourages the audience to think beyond this specific pair.

The trouble in Why Jamira Gotta Do All Da Werk?, by Nia Akilah Robinson, occurs between friends rather than romantic partners, even as it opens onto a range of sociocultural issues and pressures. We meet Jamira (Marinda Anderson) and Kiana (Shayvawn Webster) in mid-conversation at a club in present-day New York City. Jamira rapidly makes it apparent that she does not want any more advice from Kiana, whom, she later clarifies, she only thinks of as a "party" friend. The pair's nearly nonstop dancing and sometimes barbed banter create some hilarious moments, but the areas through which their conversation ranges are unquestionably serious, from debates over natural hair to various manifestations of colorism. Significantly, all of this links to how the two present and imagine themselves. Amidst a number of disagreements, the women do bond over the cost of their night out–capitalism, after all, is an enemy that cuts across the hierarchies of gender and race that help to maintain its dominance.

It's Karen B****!, by Taylor A. Blackman, is perhaps the most adventurously provocative play of the program. After a sonic montage of "Karen" phone calls, the action begins with Michelle (Marinda Anderson) cheerily cleaning the Hyde Park home that she shares with her husband, Darrell (Benton Greene), singing Beyoncé as she works. Michelle and Darrell are happy, progressive parents who are proud of their daughter, Niani (Danielle Covington), whom they call an example of Black excellence. So when Niani sends a conspicuously formal-sounding text message telling her parents that she has an announcement to make, they feel more than prepared for what they think is coming. As it turns out, with riotous results, neither they nor, pleasurably, the audience are expecting what Niani actually has to say. Suffice it to say that Niani desires less pressure and more power, but power of a type that her parents argue derives from the oppression of others and fair-weather allyship. Anderson and Greene expertly inhabit the gradual shift in Michelle and Darrell's reactions, and they and Covington adeptly ensure that the play's unconventional elements remain grounded and authentic-feeling, right through its bombshell of a finish.

On the heels of the most heightened piece in the program, Monique Pappas-Williams's The Mural is perhaps its most dramatic, largely forgoing the comedy that variably characterizes the rest of the short plays. In its place, Shayvawn Webster and Larry Powell bring a largely quiet intensity to the roles of painters Nia and Riz, respectively. Nia finds that Riz, whom she has not seen in several years, has returned to her apartment, aided by her failure to change the locks in the intervening time. Exactly why she hasn't seen him is bound up in questions around the direction that her art has taken and differing definitions of activism, of making a difference, and of artistic voice. Displaying the sort of artistic heart of which Riz would approve, The Mural avoids easy answers for a powerful conclusion to a once-again terrific program from The Fire This Time Festival.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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