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At Fire This Time fest, black playwrights redefining expectations

Tracey Conyer Lee and Chinaza Uche in Zoey Martinson’s “The Pitch.’’

The Fire This Time Festival

Tracey Conyer Lee and Chinaza Uche in Zoey Martinson’s “The Pitch.’’

A few years ago, playwright Kelley Nicole Girod felt herself boxed in by expectations of what it means to be an African-American playwright and decided she had to try something different.

“I come from a kind of specific experience of being of African-American and Creole descent, but also of growing up in the suburbs — my father was a doctor — [and] going to private schools that were mostly white,” she says.

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“I had an agent at William Morris who had read one of my plays that was very much based in the Creole African-American experience, and she wanted to see the rest of my work. And the rest of my work was not based in that experience, and basically she was like, ‘I can’t represent you right now,’ ” Girod says. “I found what I was up against, that my expression as a black playwright could only be understood through one lens.”

She founded The Fire This Time Festival in New York to move beyond existing ideas of “black theater.” The annual festival began in New York in February 2010, offering 10-minute plays by early-career African-American playwrights without those expectations of what they’d write about.

This weekend a group of festival veterans brings a sampler to Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. They’ll offer a selection of six short plays from the festival’s first four years, performed by four actors and directed by festival veteran Nicole A. Watson.

“The bottom line is it’s a festival where the artists of color get to make the choice in curating and producing,” Watson says. “The idea of this festival is there are a lot of theater artists, a lot of writers, a lot of actors, and we want to do our jobs. We want to work. And we have a festival that gives us that chance.”

The festival’s name derives from the title of a James Baldwin essay collection, “The Fire Next Time,” which he took from the Bible. A quote from Baldwin appears on the festival’s website under “Mission”: “There is something terribly radical about believing that one’s own experience and images are important enough to speak about, much less to write about and to perform.”

‘I found what I was up against, that my expression as a black playwright could only be understood through one lens.’

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Generally the African-American plays that get produced in America’s mainstream theaters “speak about the same things,” festival producing artistic director Kevin R. Free says with a chuckle. “Often the people who are producing want to see how we have overcome. There’s a certain amount of protest kind of theater that is produced by people because they like to see angry black people onstage.

“[But] as a playwright I tend to be kind of abstract — maybe heady is a better word — and I also enjoy writing comedy,” Free says.

His “PORTAL, or Metaphorical Tricycle,” appearing here, resulted from an assignment at another theater company to write about a tricycle that had been left backstage. The monologue he wrote then has turned into a surreal play that leaves the fourth wall in rubble.

Girod’s “Poetics of the Creative Process” is more realistic, charting a meeting between a male professor at a Louisiana university and a female student who thinks he’s trying to seduce her. In outline it resembles David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” but it’s very different, going to dark places in language that’s almost musical at times. “That piece started as a poem,” she says.

The festival’s first year in New York sold out before it started, Girod says, and it has continued to be a hit, moving into a larger venue and expanding its programming. The fifth year, just ended, included the first production of a full-length play. Girod and Free say the Boston shows, the festival’s first road trip, are another big step.

Hibernian Hall artistic director Dillon Bustin attended the festival in New York last year and started working to bring the plays here. The six plays surely offer variety, he says. “They tend to deal with relationships in families, there’s some social satire, there’s one or two plays which address homosexuality, which tends to be controversial in the African-American market. One or two lean toward science fiction or fantasy.”

“I found what I was up against, that my expression as a black playwright could only be understood through one lens,” said Kelley Nicole Girod, playwright and founder of The Fire This Time Festival.

The Fire This Time Festival

“I found what I was up against, that my expression as a black playwright could only be understood through one lens,” said Kelley Nicole Girod, playwright and founder of The Fire This Time Festival.

Talking to other young black playwrights as the first festival took shape, Girod found that they shared an anger at being expected to “follow in the tradition of these icons of black theater, like August Wilson and Amiri Baraka and Lorraine Hansberry, and that what we were actually generating did not reflect that life.”

In New York, she notes, students and other young actors resist the traditional focus on African-American struggles. “It’s almost as if the pendulum has swung,” she says. “They’re like, ‘We want to do plays about being nerds,’ or ‘We want to do sci-fi plays,’ or ‘We want to do hipster-based plays.’ And our whole mantra is that there’s space for all of that.”

Bustin describes a thriving black theater scene around Boston. The companies “definitely fly under the radar, like most fringe theater companies, but there is a scene, and I’m just trying to enhance and enliven that scene,” he says.

Issues of race and expectation still play out in different and complicated ways. Bustin notes that he’s heard from “playwrights around Boston who are reluctant to be presented at Hibernian Hall because they feel it would be limiting in the way they are perceived,” he says. “They don’t want to be the African-American playwright from Roxbury. They’re trying to get downtown.”

‘The Whale’ extended

SpeakEasy Stage Company is extending the New England premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” one week, through April 12. John Kuntz stars as a 600-pound man trying to make things right with his estranged daughter before his health problems overwhelm him. Tickets for the added performances in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts start at $25 and go on sale Friday at 9 a.m. through www.speakeasystage.com and at noon through the box office or by calling 617-933-8600.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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