Dallas — Two months before Kitchen Dog Theater opened the first leg of the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of Meridith Friedman’s The Firestorm as the centerpiece of its 17th annual New Works Festival, University of Oklahoma student and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother Parker Rice was filmed on a bus chanting a racist ditty he reportedly learned at an SAE national leadership conference, N-word and lynching references fully out there.
Since the play's opening three weeks ago, there have been high-profile stories dealing with race, such as the Craig Ranch pool party incident in McKinney, Texas, and, most bizarrely, the case of now-former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be African-American and claims she identifies as black.
Just within the past year, we could list many more examples of the black/white story in this country, many of which became public thanks to viral videos and social media. Or, we could wait another week or so for another entry in this ongoing narrative to emerge. Each new story spurs dialogue (a lot of it non-productive yelling and finger-pointing) about white privilege and #blacklivesmatter on cable channels, blogs and other platforms.
It might all be considered an incredible coincidence of timing for The Firestorm, which will follow Dallas with productions at Stage Left in Chicago and Local Theatre Company in Boulder, Colo. Except that the post-“post-racial” conversation isn’t new and will likely continue, as there's still a long way to go.
But while The Firestorm deals with racial themes, it’s not interested in hot-button topics like police brutality or systematic racism. Rather, it comically examines the notion of progressives who claim to have never had a racist inclination. That song in Avenue Q said it best: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.”
The main incident in the play reveals an aggressive act of racism, as a college prank comes back to haunt rising Ohio political star Patrick (Cameron Cobb), whose campaign is heating up. That an African-American man (Jamal Gibran Sterling) appears late in the 90-minute-show makes for an interesting resolution of sorts, with more questions left open, as art is wont to do.
There’s a strong message about embarrassing actions of our youth (or less-wise days) re-emerging, something everyone can relate to—how many of us have friends who post old photos of us on Facebook, to name a milder example? For politicians, such a revelation gives the other side plenty to cackle about. Like, what if it comes out that you were a prep school bully or claimed Native American heritage to gain an advantage?
Still, what Friedman captures best happens in separate scenes featuring one-on-one interactions between the play’s white characters and Patrick’s African-American wife Gabby (Kenneisha Thompson).
The first meeting with Gabby and Patrick’s campaign manager Leslie (Janielle Kastner) is supposed to be a casual getting-to-know-you early dinner, but it quickly becomes uncomfortable when it’s clear that Leslie wants to Michelle Obama-ize Gabby, who fabulously sports a short afro. Another conversation between Gabby and Patrick, in which she goes off on the white girls who have asked to touch her hair, is priceless. (There's a similar diatribe in the 2014 film Dear White People, which is a must-see.)
But the real sparks of this firestorm are in the interplay between Patrick and Gabby. At first, it’s much like any thirtysomething, married couple. There are cute inside jokes, like their long-running gag of mimicking Rocky Balboa and Mr. T, or when he breaks out into little bits of ebonics. Some would accuse him of cultural appropriation, but because his wife is black, you know, it’s cool. Aiiiigghhhttt? (In recent pop culture news, consider the Twitter feuding between pop stars Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks.)
Director Tina Parker is a master with those tender, and later contentious, moments between two people who are madly in love with one another. Cobb is particularly great in those flirty scenes; there’s a believable playfulness early on, and later a palpable realization that the past doesn’t necessarily reconcile with his present, or future. Thompson matches him note for note, especially in that aforementioned restaurant scene with Leslie; Gabby’s trajectory is similar to Patrick’s, but from a different POV.
While Friedman cleverly captures these elements, and there are a number of funny one-liners that land, other aspects feel forced, such as subplot between Leslie and Patrick. Overall, there’s a sitcom element to this collection of short scenes that isn’t entirely satisfying—and really, that’s a critique of too many new plays of this century.
Everyone’s writing for the current short attention spans and sometimes, as with The Firestorm, it’s amusing enough—even occasionally thought provoking. But will it stick in the memory months or years from now? Time will tell, but being uncomfortably reflective for white, liberal audiences is a good start.
The Firestorm is the final fully staged Kitchen Dog production in its longtime home at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Next season, the K-Dogs will be in a temporary home at the Green Zone in the Design District, and plan to be in a new forever home for the 2016-17 season. Because Firestorm is part of the New Works Festival, there are still two more readings of new works, this Saturday. Don’t miss them:
- Good Day by Diana Lynn Small, 1 p.m. June 20
- The Incident, written and performed by Dallas actor Terry Vandivort, 4 p.m. June 20
» Read our interview with Meridith Friedman