The Fire This Time Festival has a thing for historical touchstones. Its name is a contemporary riff on James Baldwin’s searing Civil Rights-era nonfiction collection The Fire Next Time. It was founded by executive producing director Kelley Nicole Girod in 2009, the year President Barack Obama was inaugurated our first Black commander-in-chief. And this summer, after COVID-induced cancellations of theatre festivals across the nation, FTTF makes its triumphant return in another season rife with political strife.
Mounting a new-play festival in the midst of widespread illness, political dissent, human rights protests, anti-police movements, and more may seem burdensome for other 10-minute play festivals, but it falls right in line with the purpose and precedent set by The Fire. Throughout the pause of the last two years, Girod’s mission has remained the same: to provide a space for early-career theatre writers of African and African American descent to write and produce the evocative material that burned in their hearts but rarely ended up among their playwriting submissions. For more than a decade now, the festival has been a playground for writers like Antoinette Nwandu, Jocelyn Bioh, Jordan E. Cooper, and other outspoken artists who push our stories forward.
The legacy continues this year with six dramatists from all parts of the country and all cultural corners of the African diaspora: Agyeiwaa Asante, Rachel Herron, Fedna Jacquet, Marcus Scott, Phillip Christian Smith, and Lisa Rosetta Strum. At the helm are Zhailon Levingston (Chicken and Biscuits) and Tracey Coyner Lee (Sistas: The Musical!), who return as co-directors. This week, July 7 to 10, a program of 10-minute plays by these writers will be presented by FRIGID NYC at the Kraine Theater, both in person and via live stream.
Earlier this year, before an Omicron variant surge briefly re-shuttered productions in New York, I spoke with the six scribes about what it takes to write fearlessly and with fire.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: Let’s go around the room. Tell me a little about your play and when you brought it into the world.
RACHEL HERRON: My play is called Red Red Wine and I wrote it at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s set on two Black women in the very specific world of wine; one of them is rising to the top as a master sommelier. I used to work in fine dining and love everything food and beverage, but you never see Black women in that space on film, television, anywhere. I always like to make things that aren’t necessarily about race, but since we’re seeing Black people in the space, it is educating and equalizing. It takes a turn, though; I tend to have a very dark sense of humor and think I’m quite motivated by stories of revenge. I wanted to also touch on topics like assault and violence and what it looks like when Black women refuse to take it anymore.
PHILIP CHRISTIAN SMITH: My play is called Mt. Sinai. I actually have multiple myeloma. At one point, I was sitting in my chemotherapy chair during the pandemic (I had the corner, which is the best room), and they sat an older Black woman about 70 years old in one chair and another older Black woman about 70 years old in the other. The two of them hit it off like gangbusters and had a conversation in front of me for three hours. I just knew that might make a good play. It reminded me of listening to my mother’s aunts when I was a little boy, so I thought: I’m gonna write something for them.
AGYEIWAA ASANTE: My play is called Wildest Dreams. I was literally scrolling on the internet during the pandemic and came across what I think was a Buzzfeed post about people who were getting married on plantations. I became really interested and started asking questions like, what does it mean to do that? How do we acknowledge the land we are on and what has happened on it? How do we make it better?
LISA ROSETTA STRUM: My play is called By the Way. I was on this long-standing Zoom call (remember those?) every Friday night with friends, and we encroached on some incredible territory about our lives, vulnerabilities, everything. It was a wonderful time for reflection and people were telling stories about friends who evolved into lovers, married people that were getting divorced. I was fascinated, thinking about what happens when two people don’t have any other place to go; they have to just deal with each other in ways they’ve never had to before.
FEDNA JACQUET: My play is Gurlfriend (Black Is Black) and this is definitely a pandemic play. My fiancee moved into my apartment and built me an office in the coat closet because everything was shut down. I locked myself in, and this was one of the first things I created. I have a fascination with home: What is it? What version of you meets home? When does that change? The home you thought of when you were five—is it still real? Even though it’s not current? Who’s allowed in? Who’s not?
MARCUS SCOTT: My play is Wookies in the Wilderness. Everything began for me around the time George Floyd and countless other taken lives were in the news; there were protests outside of my window. So when I sat down, a couple of things were going through my head: One, I was getting a bunch of calls from white colleagues suddenly asking, Is there anything I can do for you? I got tired of that quickly, and a little resentful. But two, I was getting phone calls from friends telling me I should get survivalist books and prepare as if we were entering a mini apocalypse. And I did. Then I sat down and wrote a play about Boy Scouts, because I was basically in survival mode.
BRITTANI: It’s fascinating to hear how you all arrived here. Marcus, let’s roll back to you. You credit George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests as being the impetus to create the work. But why was the work right for this festival?
MARCUS: In quarantine, I was freed of the mindset of writing stories other people will “like.” Similar to Rachel, I have a very dark sense of humor; a lot of it skews twisted. Wookies in the Wilderness is actually part of what I’m calling my rage plays, these very angry stories I wrote in the span of about two months. I wanted to share a piece about the trauma I was feeling, in the case that others in the audience of this Black festival were feeling it too.
LISA: The Fire This Time has always been a place that has nurtured Black playwrights of diverse thought and ideas. The variety of voices here is unmatched; we are not a monolith. This company has always protected us so we can feel safe about the stories we have to tell.
BRITTANI: I know you have not started rehearsals as yet, but hopefully they will be another taste of the long, creative, collaborative careers you will lead in this industry. What are you most looking forward to?
FEDNA: The audience. Full stop. I was an actor at this festival years ago; this and the Classical Theatre of Harlem were my introductions to New York. I remember the energy the audience gave, they were so here for it—laughing, crying, just on the edge of their seats. Sometimes people come to festival shows to morph your work or critique it; people have all different kinds of motivations. But this specific audience wanted to hear what was new and who was fresh. People in our community come to have a good time and they show it.
AGYEIWAA: If I could have any other job in the theatre, it’d be a professional audience member. I can’t wait to be loud in the audience—it’s so much a part of the experience!
BRITTANI: By now we’ve cycled through many waves of a global pandemic and, I’d argue, a new wave of Black revolutionary thought when it comes to the theatre industry. Have you all taken a moment to think about the historical context in which you are presenting this work?
MARCUS: When I first came to New York a lot of institutions were talking about this idea of “post-Blackness,” largely because of Obama’s presidency. I’m excited that the six of us are coming in and repositioning that mirror. We’re speaking to the reality of what we saw on Jan. 6, not a “post-Black” fantasy.
FEDNA: There’s something about having a moving vehicle; that’s what the festival is. We are not in the same movement from the ’60s, the ’70s, or even the 2000s. And The Fire This Time catches us by always staying fresh, by committing to new voices every year. That’s what keeps the work relevant and why audiences keep coming back.
BRITTANI: One of the many joys of reading these plays is discovering how many of them intersect with queerness, nationality, class disparity, etc. When you’re writing, how much are you thinking about identity, representation, responsibility—all of the things that weigh a little heavier on Black artists?
MARCUS: I never feel pressure until I’m submitting, to be honest. I’ve seen countless plays by white authors, where it’s just them being white sitting on a couch. This is the festival that Katori Hall came from, Dominique Morisseau, Jordan E. Cooper. The only pressure I feel is to live up to their great work.
AGYEIWAA: I’ve always overthought this. When I was 12, I was like, “I don’t know what boys think.” I don’t know how to write boys! They’re these weird other creatures.
BRITTANI: You weren’t wrong.
AGYEIWAA: Not at all. And when you grow up Black in America, you’re steeped in African American culture. But I’m speaking to you from Ghana right now. I’m in my grandparents’ home. I have this direct relationship with my personal history, but also acknowledge the privilege of growing up around African American culture, and when I do decide to write African American voices, I’m careful with it. I never feel that just because I’m Black, I can tell every story well. I still have to be specific; there are intersections to acknowledge.
RACHEL: I want to be a disrupter and change everything on its head. I grew up in a predominantly white community doing horseback riding, playing the violin, all this stuff where I was the only one, right? I had a great time, but there was always a feeling of, well, I really am the only one and am representing something so much larger than myself just by being here. I didn’t sign up for that. I didn’t want that. I just wanted to be there because it was fun! But that tension is always there, whether it’s internal or happening in conversations around you.
BRITTANI: Lisa and Fedna, you’ve acted in this festival before. Many of you are multidisciplinary artists. Do you notice your other skills showing up on the page, and do you think they will come up in the rehearsal room?
LISA: I notice it when I’m writing, which I’m fairly new to professionally. I always ask, if I was the actor, would I actually want to do this? I think of movement and try to write as conversational as possible. I also think about whether or not I would sit and watch the show, and take it from there.
PHILLIP: I’m in graduate school again, right now. So I’m out here, collecting MFAs. If you’ve got an MFA for me, just put it in the chat! I’m the only actor in my class, so it’s great to flex those muscles. I hear you, Lisa, about the actor brain kind of coming in. It makes it easier to talk to your cast, get into their emotions and speak their language.
BRITTANI: What do you make of The Fire This Time Festival’s legacy, especially now that you’re a part of it?
RACHEL: It’s so important to showcase that all of our plays are different. Like Lisa said earlier, we are not a monolith. There does not have to be one slot for us; we can create stories that are nuanced and varied so give us the entire season! It will be different, yes, but the festival proves people will come to see it. I’m just ready. It’s our time and I feel like we should take it.
Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a NY-based writer, critic, and the co-editor of 3Views on Theater. Bylines can be found at places like Observer, Glamour, OkayAfrica, and InStyle. She can be found at BrittaniSamuel.com or on Instagram at @brittaniidiannee.
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