By Eliana Pipes, Frederica Bailey, Karen Chilton, Shamar White, Michelle Tyrene Johnson, Jordan E. Cooper, and C.A. Johnson; Directed by Cezar Williams
Produced by Horse Trade Theater Group
Off Off Broadway, Short Plays
Runs through 2.5.16
The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 1.25.17
Maurice McRae and Karen Chilton in Waiting for Virginia Wolfe from The Fire This Time Festival. Photo by Antonia Stoyanovich.
BOTTOM LINE: This offering of seven ten-minute plays offers a pleasing variety of drama and comedy, while also shedding light on timely social and political issues.
It seems fitting that on the first day of Trump’s presidency, hours after attending the Women’s March, I saw The Fire This Time Festival, an annual series of ten-minute plays by playwrights who are African American and of African descent. Many of the pieces explore issues relevant to racial discrimination and America’s political policies, both domestic and abroad. Given the dramatic change in our government, the themes in this year's plays take on a timeliness and relevance they would not have had a mere six months ago.
In the show’s opening piece, Jordan E. Cooper's Ain’t No Mo, lively Pastor Freeman (played by the playwright) makes his way to the front of his church and begins a somber funeral sermon. Having trouble holding back his apparent joy, he stops his speech to announce that, despite the terrible loss that they are recognizing today, it is still an amazing day as the first black president has just been elected. The preacher leaps and cheers through the air declaring that the days of racism and the stereotyping of black folk in America are officially over. As the scene closes, a spotlight focuses on the preacher while he looks ahead in fear as sound clips are played from news stories related to the recent police shootings of black men, proving that Obama’s election did not, in fact, end racism. The play closes with audio from Obama’s farewell speech, showing the uncertain future awaiting us with the current presidency.
The themes from this work appear again in The Fucking World and Everything in It, by C.A. Johnson, in which a police officer (Txai Frota) unfairly arrests a teenage African American boy (Sidiki Fofama) simply because he looked suspicious while waiting for his sandwich order. The officer demands that the boy tell him what he was really up to, refusing to believe that he could be standing on the corner for such an innocuous reason. The play succeeds by not simply demonizing the officer, but instead showing him to be part of a larger flawed system.
Next is Shamar S. White's Detained, in which our country’s international policies are explored. In this piece, a female soldier (Patrice Bell) interacts with an Afghan woman, causing the solider to change her perspective over the role the U.S. government and military plays, while leaving the solider with psychological trauma.
The tone of the festival becomes a bit lighter in the very clever SWITCH!, by Karen Chilton, who also stars in it. Chilton plays Joan, a therapist whose day is thrown for a loop when her new client turns out to be her former friend Guy (Maurice McRae), who is also a therapist. The two have not seen each other since their mutual friend Kat committed suicide. While they at first balk at the unexpected reunion, Guy is distraught enough to stay and attempt to get the help that he needs. Chilton shows great skill here, both as a performer and as a playwright, with a script that manages to show both compelling drama and witty dialogue. Chilton and McRae have great chemistry as performers, and they play off of each other well.
Thankfully, Chilton and McRae show up together again in Waiting for Virginia Wolfe by Michelle Tyrene Johnson, in which cultures clash when two couples from very different walks of life are forced to wait in drunken hunger for a dinner guest who does not appear to be coming. Chilton and McRae's chemistry is augmented well by the performances of Cooper and Bell. Chilton’s comedic skills thankfully are shown a third time in Love and Happiness: Ada’s Story, in which she plays a woman in 1939 who has just discovered that she has been made pregnant by a much younger man (Fofama). Despite the man's endless declarations of love for her, she wonders if their relationship has any hope.
Finally, in Eliana Pipes' Stiletto Envy, best friends Shaun (Cooper) and Melanie (Eliana Pipes) meet so that Shaun can help Melanie practice walking in stilettos for their senior prom. Shaun skillfully gives a divaish walk in his bright red heels which Melanie tries to replicate. As the two prance in their heels, Shaun reveals that despite his fondness for women’s clothing and being a gender nonconformist, he actually is romantically interested in Melanie and would like to be her prom date, something Melanie cannot fully comprehend.
All of the short plays in The Fire This Time Festival connect to timely social and political issues, and come to life with compelling characters and humor-filled scripts. Each of the performers, many of whom are also playwrights, engage fully in their roles to bring these stories to light. Although the plays here are written and performed by black folk, and directly concern the variety of stories that make up the African American experience, the stories and themes are certainly relatable and relevant to those from all walks of life. With the help of the skillful actors and Cezar Willams' direction, the minimalist set serves to establish each scene. While in months past I might have found the political themes in one or two of the plays to be a bit obvious or heavy-handed, they seem to have far greater relevance in the current political climate. These are voices and stories that need to be heard now, more than ever. I only hope they can be heard beyond this festival.
(The Fire This Time Festival plays at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, through February 5, 2017. The running time is 90 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 5. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students, seniors, and military) and are available at horsetrade.info or by calling 800-901-7173. For more information visit firethistimefestival.com.)
The Fire This Time consists of plays by Eliana Pipes, Frederica Bailey, Karen Chilton, Shamar White, Michelle Tyrene Johnson, Jordan E. Cooper, and C.A. Johnson. Directed by Cezar Williams.
The cast is Eliana Pipes, Karen Chilton, Jordan E. Cooper, Txai Frota, Maurice McRae, Patrice Bell, and Sidiki Fofama.