Generating ‘black theater’ for today’s generation

The cast of “Lord’s Resistance” — Camille Darby’s play about a former Ugandan child soldier who finds familiar conflict, after he’s adopted by a suburban Chicago family.  PHOTO BY LIA CHANG

The cast of “Lord’s Resistance” — Camille Darby’s play about a former Ugandan child soldier who finds familiar conflict, after he’s adopted by a suburban Chicago family. PHOTO BY LIA CHANG

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  It’s quite possible that 59-year-old actor Denzel Washington spent this past Monday night contemplating his role as 30-something Walter Lee Younger, in preparation for yet another revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

That precise scenario didn’t come up during the launch event for The Fire This Time Festival — but its multitude of ironies were certainly on the radar of early career African and African-American playwrights who spent their Monday night exploring the possibilities of 21st-century “black theater.”

“People got very passionate about the fact that we’re recycling the old stories as if it’s a representation of where we are now,” says festival founder Kelley Nicole Girod, of what happened when the panel discussion turned to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood.

The Fire This Time Festival burns brighter than Broadway’s ‘Sun’

Girod herself regards the upcoming Broadway run as “absurd. It might be different,” she allows, “if they were at least doing it with actors that fit the age type. That’s not to say that Hansberry’s expression of her time isn’t relevant. Our history will always be relevant. But it’s about time that people give an accurate portrayal of the black community as it is now. We’re not all Walter Lee. I don’t see him, or that family, as a representation of what I am experiencing.”

Raised in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Girod was  “a bit of a punk” whose love of Depeche Mode made her realize, upon arrival at Columbia, that she “didn’t have what I feel most people would think of as an ‘authentic black experience.’ ” Acutely aware of slavery, civil rights and Jim Crow — but not compelled to write about it — the hungry, post-college Girod found that she “couldn’t be marketed as a ‘black writer.’ And that, really, was the jumping off point for our festival. When we all got together, we recognized that our writing was a response to our own experiences.”

Five years later, The Fire This Time Festival is once again back at the East Village’s Kraine Theater for a series of staged readings, a full-length work, a collection of 10-minute plays and an open mic night. The subject matter ranges from a doctor’s Senate run (Judy Tate’s “Disunion”) to an adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” (Jonathan Payne’s “The Weatherin’”) to the culture shock of a former Ugandan child soldier adopted by a suburban Chicago family (Camille Darby’s “Lord’s Resistance”).

In years past, the festival has frankly explored gay sexuality and other aspects of contemporary life — while remaining equally committed to presenting work anchored in sci-fi and Greek mythology, and having little or nothing to do with race. The result, Girod notes, is a more “accurate cataloging” of the black experience than what’s currently being bankrolled by Broadway producers. It also inspired a phrase that serves as the festival’s only strict philosophical guideline: “Any play written by a black person is a black expression, even if it’s about two white people in love.”

The Fire This Time’s first-ever presentation of a full-length play, “Lord’s Resistance,” is performed Wed.-Fri., 8pm, through Jan. 31. The 10-Minute Play Festival takes place at 8pm on Jan. 25-27 and Feb. 1-3. Staged readings of full-length plays written by Tracey Conyer Lee, Danielle Davenport, Eric Lockley, Cynthia Robinson, Nathan Yungerberg, Dennis A. Allen II and J. Holtham take place at 6pm on Jan. 23, 24 and 29-31. At 6pm on Tues., Jan. 28, the public is invited to participate in an Open Mic Night (hosted by Dominique Morrisseau).

 

All events take place at The Kraine Theater (85 E. Fourth St., btw. Second Ave. & Bowery). For tickets ($15), call 212-868-4444 or visit horsetrade.info. Admission to the staged readings is Pay-What-You-Will. For more festival info, visit firethistimefestival.com.

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One Response to Generating ‘black theater’ for today’s generation

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