Review: The Fire This Time Festival spotlights LGBTQ love that rings true and an unintended spoof of transgender identity

Joël René Scoville’s 10-minute play, “Ethel & Ethel,” portrays a palpable account of the love affair between 1920s blues singer Ethel Waters and dancer Ethel Williams.

James Baldwin’s celebrated essay collection, “The Fire Next Time,” has inspired numerous artistic works since its 1963 release. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ instant classic, “Between the World and Me,” and Jesmyn Ward’s race-themed anthology of 2016, “The Fire This Time,” are among them. Earlier this month, a New York celebration began serving up Baldwin-esque food for thought, and a few days remain to experience the cultural event.

Making statements about race, colorism, female agency and queer identity, the 15th annual The Fire This Time Festival – running at The Wild Project in the East Village of Manhattan until January 28 – extols the resilience of Black theater.  Kelley Nicole Girod founded the Obie Award-winning festival to support the work of rising playwrights. 

The event features a series of 10-minute vignettes from six up-and-coming African American playwrights, and this year The Fire This Time Festival focuses its mini-productions on Black women and the Black family. Director Cezar Williams reprises what’s known as the Ten-Minute Play Program. The idea debuted in 2017 to give emerging writers of color the platform to workshop their underrepresented stories for future development.

(Left to right) Marinda Anderson and Danielle Covington appear in “Ethel & Ethel,” a 10-minute play by Joël René Scoville, featured in The Fire This Time Festival 2024. (Photo courtesy of The Fire This Time Festival, photo by Garlia Jones)

Employing a small troupe of actors –including Marinda Anderson, Danielle Covington, Benton Greene, Larry Powell and Shayvawn Webster – some plays’ themes overlapped, and a few clichés crept into the writing, but the ideas were all worth mulling.

“It’s Karen B****!,” written by Brooklyn-based playwright Taylor Blackman, takes the “Cosby Show” scenario of a liberal, upper-middle-class, two-parent household raising a socially aspirational daughter and turns it on its head. When the daughter asks her parents to prepare for a self-revelation, they comically assume the announcement will be of the LGBTQ variety – hanging a Pride flag and rocking rainbow T-shirts. Instead, she arrives home in a blond wig confessing that she identifies as a white girl named Karen. Recalling a similar “transracial” conceit from the first season of the former cable series “Atlanta,” Blackman’s skit questions ideas such as Black excellence (Karen wants to be mediocre instead of constantly overachieving). But his spoof isn’t constructed well enough to avoid inadvertently holding the notion of transgender identity up to ridicule. 

Love don’t live here anymore in Black Light Arts Collective founder Leelee Jackson’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Her playlet begins with the all-too-familiar scene of lovemaking gone awry when a male partner satisfies himself before bringing his lover to climax. An inevitable argument ensues, wherein she decides to leave her boyfriend once and for all. Though actor Benton Greene doesn’t play her lover sympathetically at all (“I left my white girl for you,” he complains at one point), when he finally makes attempts at opening himself up emotionally, he still remains the bad guy. When she accidentally scratches his face in a tussle and nurses his wound afterward, the audience is led to view him as a manipulative crybaby instead of any sort of victim.

The Fire This Time Festival, “It’s Karen B****!,”
(Left to right) Benton Greene, Danielle Covington and Marinda Anderson perform in Taylor Blackman’s “It’s Karen B****!,” a play featured during The Fire This Time Festival. (Photo courtesy of The Fire This Time Festival, photo by Garlia Jones)

The best of the Ten-Minute Play Program might be its opener, Joël René Scoville’s “Ethel & Ethel,” a fictionalized account of the love affair between 1920s blues singer Ethel Waters and dancer Ethel Williams. As Williams prepares for the arrival of her lover to celebrate their two-year anniversary, a gentleman caller continually rings her telephone, interrupting a lesbian love affair far more taboo in the 1920s than in the 2020s. The romantic infatuation between the Ethels (played by actresses Anderson and Covington) is palpable, and the skit’s message of throwing society’s conventions to the wind rings true.

The world-premiere runs of these six miniature plays at The Fire This Time Festival mark the emergence of early-career playwrights who speak to diverse audience interests in a tradition that would’ve made James Baldwin smile wide. 

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Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is an author and Harlem-based cultural critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Rolling Stone and many other outlets. Lewis is currently finishing a cultural biography of comedian Dave Chappelle, his follow-up to Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.