Since 2009, The Fire This Time Festival has showcased the work of playwrights from the African Diaspora. The term reflects the wide, varied range of backgrounds and identities that form the Black experience in the U.S. This year’s program of six 10-(ish)-minute-plays drives that home immediately with its first offering, “Girlfriend” by Fedna Jacquet. The play addresses the serious complexities of identity with vivid intensity and infectious humor.
Friends for Life
When best friends Lea (Jacquet) and Tonya (Denise Manning) get together after a year-long (pandemic-induced?) separation, they have much to catch up on. Lea has been accused of faking her African American bona fides because her parents immigrated from the Caribbean. Tonya has broken off her engagement because her fiancé insisted the discriminatory hardships she faces as a Black woman in America don’t compare to his as a Black man. Lit by explosively spirited performances, it’s a fevered start to The Fire This Time Festival 2022.
Marcus Scott’s “Wookies in the Wilderness” begins as a playful Star Wars-themed exchange between another pair of besties, complete with a toy light saber battle and and race-conscious interpretations of that galaxy far, far away. Teenagers Smokey (a razor-sharp Anthony Goss, speaking a hard-to-understand Ozarks/Appalachia dialect) and Bishop (a tunefully centered Ricardy Fabre) have met up in the wilderness where Smokey is preparing for an Eagle Scouts survival test.
Bishop is reading science fiction and trying to recover from the murder of his beloved older brother by entitled white rednecks, a killing specifically reminiscent of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. (It’s sadly telling that racially motivated murders of Black Americans are so common that in composing this review I had to do a Google search to remind myself of the name of the jogger murdered in Georgia in 2020.)
While Arbery’s three real-life killers were ultimately found guilty, Bishop’s brother’s murderers have so far gotten off scot-free. His devoted friend Smokey won’t let that rest. The plot turns on Smokey’s ulterior motive for bringing his bookish friend to the wilderness.
Wine, Women and Ghosts
But these plays do more than reflect conflict and struggle. They reveal interesting truths about internal psychologies and identities. In Phillip Christian Smith’s hopeful “Mount Sinai,” an aging cancer patient belatedly discovers a youthful spriteliness. In Lisa Rosetta Strum’s “By the Way…” Jacquet and Fabre return to deliver gems of performances in a fraught tale of sexual awakening. Jacquet brings the same eye-opening intensity to this emotional two-hander as she displayed more comically in “Girlfriend.”
Manning, her “Girlfriend” co-star, returns just as animated but with toned-down pugnaciousness for “Red Red Wine.” Rachel Herron’s hilarious and macabre piece reveals the stresses that simmer in the souls of Black women even when they achieve a measure of career success.
Wine store owner Somm (get it?) (a strong turn by Patricia R. Floyd) is dubious about her employee Mel’s (Manning) aspiration to become the first Black woman to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMSA) exam. But the reason is not what you might expect. Mel mines comedy gold from her analysis of the wine she’s trying to identify. But the talk turns serious when a revelation by Mel leads down a dark path into Somm’s own past.
Fittingly, the show closes by taking a long view of African American history. In Agyeiwaa Asante’s “Wildest Dreams,” a restored plantation hosts a graduation party from a Black college. As the graduates celebrate with the slogan “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” the ghosts of some of their actual ancestors look on from two centuries past. Awaiting true justice, Jimmy Dale (Goss) has hung on in limbo, with Maybelle (a sharp and touching Marjorie Johnson) sticking by him.
Will they finally let it go and walk easeful through the gate to the next world? The answer depends on exactly who they are. How long can a given person hang on in this world of trouble? The Fire This Time Festival shows us that are no reliable generalities to the African Diaspora.
It does, however, give us reliably good theater. The 2022 edition runs through 10 July at the Kraine Theater. Tickets are available online.