The script for Jenifer Nii’s Fire!, the one-actor show which is in the middle of a sensational run in the Plan-B Theatre production, is so exquisitely crafted in the precise rhythm of the playwright’s language that it becomes magic in the hands of a gifted actor.
Reprising a role that he performed 13 years ago, Carleton Bluford has ripened with the wisdom of his personal and professional experiences, as he portrays Wallace Thurman. Fire!, directed by Jerry Rapier, is a theatrical tribute which significantly boosts public awareness of Thurman, who was raised and educated in Salt Lake City and, in his short life, quickly rose to major figure status in the Harlem Renaissance.
Throughout the 45-minute play, Bluford excels in properly extruding the cadences and rhythms of Nii’s words. But, near the play’s end, there is one especially astonishing moment. At 32, Thurman knows his remaining days are numbered, as his health woes accumulate due to tuberculosis and alcoholism. Bluford says, “One day, if I keep faith, perhaps I too will learn what it is.” He subtly slows the rhythm, as he speaks, “To make manifest my own clarion call. To open my mouth and sing the notes I have written, and know that they are beautiful.” By this point, Bluford has pulled the cadence so that every remaining word will be heard: “And my friends, That. Will. Be…”
There is still a bit more remaining in the play but Bluford’s deliberate efforts to extract the full preciousness of that moment is profound for several reasons. The ephemeral silence is so striking that one nearly expects the sound effect of the passing train, which occurs periodically throughout the play, to return but it does not.
It is Bluford’s nuances that underscore this production as a bittersweet celebration. In The Utah Review preview, the point emphasized was how Fire!, the first play by Nii that would be professionally produced, represented a perfect trinity for the playwright, the actor and the company.
As Thurman came of age, the Harlem Renaissance blossomed rapidly, thanks to the exceptional early triumphs of some of its youngest figures. Just a year older than Thurman, Langston Hughes wrote the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers at the age of 19, which was published a year later in the magazine of the NAACP and became the spark for Hughes’ legacy that has been sustained after his death at the age of 66 in 1967. By the age of 30, Thurman had set his own path with critically acclaimed and controversial novels, the first Broadway show which included an African American writer as a major creative credit and his appointment as the first African American editor-in-chief of a U.S. publishing house. Unfortunately, two years later, he was dead and, in many respects, seemed destined to become a mere footnote in the American history of arts and letters. With the exception of Fire!, there is no other formal tribute in Utah acknowledging Thurman’s pioneering path in the literary world.
With this 2010 play, Nii also blazed her own path. A former journalist, she would become the first Asian American playwright in Utah to have a work professionally produced. Her body of work expanded rapidly in diversity of genres and narrative treatments, garnering recognition from national organizations with award nominations and a grant, for example. But, Nii’s creative voice is now silenced, due to hippocampal atrophy, as noted previously.
There are numerous stunning parallels that pop in the play. Nii and Thurman were both journalists in their professional lives. Lines that Nii wrote 13 years ago carry even greater dramatic impact that only a gifted actor who has fully absorbed the meaning of the character he portrays as well as the bond of the playwright to the story of that character could interpret so powerfully. In fact, Nii said in 2010 and reiterated last year that she always had envisioned Bluford as the most suited actor to transmit the voice of Thurman on stage.
“It’s true, you know, what happens when death approaches,” Thurman says in the play. Bluford quickens, stretches, quickens and then stretches again the words. “Suddenly there is no and too much time, and there’s little for the brain to do but wonder about any number of impossibilities: what would have been different had I done that thing or another, at that time or another? If I’d made more of an effort, could I have become more than the sum of my failings?”
One of the greatest skills a journalist possesses is the ability to take volumes of research and to distill them in a concise, clarifying manner, without sacrificing the importance of truth and contextual significance. When such a journalist becomes a playwright, the embodiment of emotional connection magnifies those skills, giving the actor the opportunity to produce earnest moments which are unforgettable.
In another moment, Bluford is just as astonishing. Thurman rattles off the names of the gods he most admires: “Aristotle and Euripides, Shakespeare and Dickens, James and Wharton, Toomer and Hughes. My gods, all. I gathered them together, there at the Manor. And for that blink of time, it was rapture.”
Listening closely, one knows Bluford’s earnest voice indicates that his personal sensation of rapture includes Thurman and Nii. Bluford, who has said that the first experience of portraying Thurman shaped his development as an actor and as a writer, expresses his gratitude on stage with elegant discretion, which authenticates Fire! as the perfect trinity for him, Nii and Plan-B.
Plan-B occupies a unique place with a brand of intimate chamber theater that strikes at the heart and soul in deep roots, which require us as audience members to watch and listen as closely as possible to find the connection that matters the most personally. Fire! is one of those productions that leaves different impacts on different audiences. Younger audiences appreciate Thurman’s wit in a way that eludes their older counterparts, thus proving how fresh and relevant both playwright and actor have made a figure from a century ago profoundly relatable. Others are struck by the fact that a young non-Mormon African American from Utah rose quickly to have a major presence in the Harlem Renaissance. And, there are others who watch intently, a gesture of respect and reverence for the playwright and actor and their exceptional gifts.
The remainder of the run, which closes April 23, is sold out but there is a waiting list for any last-minute ticket openings. For more information, see the Plan-B website.