Orchids and Polka Dots featuring Kistoffer Tonning and McKenzie A. Frye Photo credit Nathan Yungerberg

Kristofer Tonning and McKenzie Frye in “Orchids and Polka Dots”

The Fire This Time festival, now in its fourth year, features ten minute plays by young and emerging playwrights of color. (Check out my review for the 2010 season.) The founding producer Kelley Nicole Girod’s mission with The Fire This Time (the name of the festival is a play on the title of James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time) is to broaden the scope of the Theatre of Color to include not only African-Americans and the conventions of Baldwin’s generation of writers, but to “any play written by a black playwright . . . even if it is a play about two white people in love.” This is an expansive definition of what constitutes “black theatre,” and the playwrights whose works are featured this year explore many of its implications.

Two of the plays, Favored Nations and Always don’t make any explicit reference to blackness or the black experience as such. Favored Nations, by J. Holtham, whose excellent short Occupied was one of the best offerings at Red Fern Theater Company’s Created Equal night of ten minute plays last January, is a tale of two brothers’ rivalry. Its derivation is as universal as Gilgamesh or As You Like It. It’s funny, the story is well told, and the three actors (Flor De Liz Perez, Bjorn DuPaty, Shawn Randall) are of color; but the characters could be white or Chinese (ABCs of the sort reviewed here). If translated into Persian, it would probably make Iranians laugh. Always is the story of two professionals (played by chandra thomas and Peyton Coles). One is a novelist, and the other is a doctor. They were in love as adolescents, but it ended badly, and now they are confronting the past together. This sounds like the kind of post-black story Girod refers to in the quote above.

Nightfall, by Cynthia Robinson, is set in southern Darfur, Sudan. Kofi (Neil Dawson) and his pregnant wife Josiane (Georgia Southern) have just put their daughter to sleep and are about to celebrate their anniversary when a crash outside alerts them to the presence of raiders. Two janjaweed (Leopold Lowe and Clinton Lowe) burst in looking for trouble. Needless to say, they find it. As the only play about Africans, Nightfall is distinct in this collection. Here the blackness of the Sudanese isn’t as important to our understanding of their emotions as their specifically African setting, which has the curious effect of universalizing the drama. (Blackness might have been important to the play if we are to take the two janjaweed to be Arab, but there is no indication that that is the case.) The audience sits at an anthropological distance from the characters. The same scene has (sadly) played out in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Armenia, Turkey and Greece, Germany and Manchuria — and that’s only in the last one hundred years! If you had a golden coin for every wistful domestic scene exploded by the irrational hatred of ethnic violence, you would be richer than Carlos Slim.

Two of the plays, Orchids and Polka Dots, by Nathan Yungerberg, and The Sad, Secret (Sex) Life of Steve Urkel, by Eric Lockley, are comedies set around African-American sexual tropes. In Orchids and Polka Dots Mrs. Jordan (McKenzie Frye) is a respectable, middle-class African-American housewife in the 1950s who is sent by her (predictably patriarchal) husband to be a test subject in a psych lab. Dr. Gentry, the lab technician, is a white man, played with genuine pathos (and sincere whiteness) by Kristofer Tonning. Gentry doses Mrs. Jordan with LSD, which frees her from conjugal fear, and she blooms like the titular flower. In the process she opens Dr. Gentry’s eyes to the beauties of a world he denied himself for fear of his father. In The Sad, Secret (Sex) Life of Steve Urkel, Steve, played with perfect pitch by Larry Powell, has invented a love potion to make Laura Winslow (Toccara Cash) fall in love with him. As a nerd, he doesn’t foresee the physical dimension of her chemical dementia, but after they have knocked the proverbial boots, he finds out too late that the Winslows’ life is less idyllic — and more real — than it appears on TV.

Both these plays are very funny. Mr. Lockley’s urbanificatory twist on the cultural assumptions behind Family Matters hit the sweet spot of satire between two idealized versions of the black American experience: Huxtable family, middle class, assimilation aspiration versus the streetwise, hustler/thug, CEO outlaw of hip hop lore. And McKenzie Frye had the audience crying tears of joy as she spread the word (the word is “love”) to sad sack Dr. Gentry. But there is a touch of the “magical negro” trope in Orchids that prevents Mrs. Jordan from being a fully realized and developed character. One gets the feeling that the play could be funny or offensive depending on the complexion of the person laughing.

The two most powerful and disturbing pieces are Within Untainted Wombs by Dennis A. Allen II and Poor Posturing by Tracey Conyer Lee. In the former, a pregnant woman has agreed to medical experiments without her husband’s consent, an interesting and probably coincidental inversion of the scenario in Orchids. The experiment, run by a black, woman doctor (Lori E. Parquet), seeks to establish a psychic link between the woman and her unborn fetus. During the experiment Baby (W. Tre Davis as a very muscular, manly fetus) tells Mother (Lynnette R. Freeman) that she doesn’t want him. (Clearly he hasn’t yet learned not to talk back to your mother.) She, in turn, freaks out, runs home, and tells what she did to her husband Shawn (DeSean Stokes), who, curiously, is the only character with a real first name and not a functional identity descriptor. Shawn finds Doctor and is flabbergasted to see that she is, in fact, a black woman. (Does he think that the culture of dispassionate experimentation that produces doctors is a con by white men to disempower black men?) He berates her for continuing the evil work of the Tuskegee experimenters, and for being a traitor to her race. She calls him paranoid. Mother isn’t sure what she thinks, so she goes back to Doctor in secret to talk to Baby once more. She explains to Baby that things are better now than they ever have been for black people, but we get the sense she doesn’t really believe it.

Within Untainted Wombs is an excerpt from a longer play, so it is difficult to frame Shawn’s reaction to the experiment, but his reference to the infamous Tuskegee experiments, where 600 black men were infected with syphilis by the US government, shifts the audience’s attention away from the pathos of a woman who fears for her child to the possibility that sexual reproduction of African-Americans — in particular the virility of African-American men — is intentionally, cynically, and sadistically perverted by the (white) powers that be. In this case, it seems the doctor protests too little, and the play’s real center of gravity is a black man’s fear of impotence and racial dilution.

In Poor Posturing white college professor Rachel (Sara Thigpen) has black college student Demetrius (Chinaza Uche) in her office for disciplinary action. Demetrius asks what he’s done wrong, and Rachel tells him his posture is “aggressive.” So he sits back, and she accuses him of slouching, which makes him look “lazy.” Poor Demetrius tells Rachel he just wants to fit in, to be invisible on campus and in her enormous lecture hall, but she pretends not to hear because she wants to “help” him. Rachel’s black female colleague Professor Hollingsworth enters innocently enough to ask Rachel if she wants to go for coffee and catches Rachel red handed trying to whitewash Demetrius. An argument ensues.

Poor Posturing lives up to its title. It is a variation on Mamet’s Oleanna, where the gender struggle is reversed and amplified by race. But the posture taken by the play itself recalls Shawn from Untainted Wombs, who sees a conspiracy in every gesture of the white man (and woman). There is a fine distinction between respect and command that the play tries and fails to elaborate. In this case respect is what the university, as an abstract cultural institution with deep roots in the European tradition, does not give Demetrius’s or Dr. Hollingsworth’s racial identity. In Poor Posturing that lack of respect is meant to be read as a command to subservience: black Americans must renounce their culture and history, they must pretend to be white, in order to succeed. A deeper paranoia, that whites use this premise to sadistically exploit blacks in their power, is the big fish swimming beneath the surface of the play.

The appeal Dr. Hollingsworth makes to her and Demetrius’s identity is profoundly conservative, the proof of which is Dr. Hollingsworth’s condemnation of Rachel’s blasphemy. (The play implies Rachel is a secular humanist who carelessly takes the Lord’s name in vain.) It is important to remember that the modern research university is a place dominated by secular humanists whose explicit — liberal with a capital “L” — mission is to demote identity as a source of authority in the service of discovering universal truths. This is true for whites as well as every other racial and ethnic identity: the steadily decaying importance of English departments (not to mention non-analytical philosophy, history and religion departments) and proliferation and the empowerment of cultural studies departments, science and technology studies has stirred up panicky paranoia among conservative whites since the 1960s. In this Charles Barron‘s call for “African” classrooms and William Bennett‘s The Book of Virtues have a lot in common. (Both men were born in Brooklyn, btw).

Conservatives believe in hierarchy, and in America in the last sixty or so years they have been apoplectic because they think the hierarchy is poorly or incorrectly defined. This is a well known national narrative for white conservatives, but the implications for black conservatives isn’t as well known. Poor Posturing argues that what may have been Rachel’s legitimate authority as a teacher is invalidated by her inherently evil appropriation and manipulation of blacks. This point could be underlined in future performances by making the actor paint her face in optic white makeup and wear pale blue contact lenses. The moral hierarchy in this scene is out of joint, and the play ends tragically as Demetrius and Dr. Hollingsworth succumb to Rachel’s brain-whitewashing. But in an alternate universe, one with a happy ending, Rachel would be vanquished, and Demetrius and Dr. Hollingsworth would direct an institution designed to respect (or better yet, promote) their identity.

In the final analysis, the Fire This Time is a must-see festival for anyone interested in black theater, and that means anyone interested in American theater, because there is no “America” without African-Americans.