The Fire This Time Festival's program of six one-act plays by emerging African American playwrights is as accomplished and engaging a presentation of ten-minute plays as you could hope for. Not only are the plays themselves well-crafted (and compellingly dramatic...these are plays, not sketches or vignettes), but the productions themselves are of high quality and the actors who have been enlisted to appear in them are at the top of their form.
Interestingly—and I am certain not at all by design—five of the six pieces included here are about families; specifically, parents and children. The juxtapositions of these stories make for fascinating and thought-provoking viewing.
Three of the plays are written by men, and all of these deal with a gay son and his father. The Scorpion and the Fox, by Jesse Cameron Alick, is a monologue in which an estranged father tries to reach out to his HIV-positive son. The son is physically present on stage, but silent; it's ambiguous whether they're actually occupying the same space, which gives the piece particular resonance. It's directed by L.A. Williams and performed by Jared Joseph.
The Sporting Life of Icarus Jones, by Marcus Gardley, is a very accomplished drama, told in short scenes seven years apart, detailing the life of the title character from his birth (which results in the death of his mother) to his 21st year. Stanley W. Mathis—whose work I've seen mostly in Broadway musicals like Kiss Me, Kate—delivers a shattering performance as Icarus's working class dad, Deadlust. Clinton Roane plays Icarus and Zurin Villanueva is the narrator/songstress, who provides a cappella commentary that's beautiful and poignant. This piece is directed with great care by the fine actress Lynda Gravatt.
Yusef Miller's Breakfast is perhaps even more powerful: it takes place at a breakfast table, where Glen is expecting his wife to make his ham and eggs as she always does. But today Harriet informs him that they're going to consider Pop Tarts instead. Behind this startling pronouncement is the difficult truth that their son killed himself the night before; the play probes their psyches compassionately as they try to assess what they really knew about their gay son and what they refused to know, starting with what he ate for breakfast. Directed by Zoey, and performed vividly by Sean C. Turner and Juliette Jeffers, this is a moving and highly theatrical portrait of a family in denial.
The other plays are by women and range over a variety of subjects. Exodus, by Camille Darby, is about a mother and daughter on the night before the mother must leave her longtime home. The daughter wants her to move in with her and her family, but the mother wants to return to her native country. A lot of ground is covered in this play, which considers many kinds of familial obligations and several different meanings of "home." Lisa Strum and Angela Polite play the daughter and mother, respectively, under the direction of Christopher Burris.
Dominique Morisseau's Third Grade pits a conscientious but clearly overworked schoolteacher against the blue-collar, undereducated father of one of her students. Here again, some intriguing issues are raised, as the father demands the addresses of the parents of two kids who beat up his son. Louis Martinez and Andrea Patterson co-star; Monica L. Williams is the director.
The last play I will talk about is actually the first on the bill, and the only one not about parents and children. This is Christine Jean Chambers's The Eternal Return, a tantalizing, somewhat stylized look at the rise and fall of a relationship. I particularly enjoyed Alexander Mulzac's performance as a virile, flawed, confident man who for reasons that at least partially reveal themselves seems to be uninterested in his lively, smart, and sexy girlfriend (played by Michaela Watkins). Colette Robert directs.
All of the plays are worthy of attention. Not only does this evening introduce us to many talented artists, but it offers six tight, self-contained dramas that are stylistically very different from one another but have in common a seriousness of purpose and an intelligent, beating heart. Kudos to festival producers Kelley Nicole Girod, Derek Lee McPhatter, and Germono Toussaint for bringing this work together and mounting it with such care and skill.