Review: ‘FIRE’ at Plan-B Theatre

Plan B Theatre’s revival production of Jennifer Nii’s highly acclaimed FIRE opened in April of 2023. FIRE, Nii’s farewell to her astonishing career as a playwright, features a stunning solo performance by Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman, the celebrated African American writer and editor who grew up in Salt Lake City. FIRE played from opening night to closing night to sold-out houses. 

As the lights dim, the stage’s backlights illuminate the simple backdrop with the word ‘FIRE rendered in bold red print. Wallace Thurman takes the stage with a haughty swagger that belies the struggle of a deeply committed Black artist seeking his freedom to create without artifice or compromise. And to do so in a place that averts its eyes from, nay scorns, Black cultural expression.

Thurman is, after all, a child of Salt Lake City, Utah—raised by his grandmother who ventured across the plains as Brigham Young’s servant; and the son of a peripatetic mother who broadened his experiences through travel and the reassurances of his intellect, individuality and artistic promise.

After two years at the University of Utah, Thurman hit the road westward. Seeking a vital, energetic Black community, he arrived at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Here, among his peers, Thurman discovered for the first time what it meant to be Black—in fact, too Black. In defiance and as an affirmative act of rebellion he founded Outlet, a Black cultural magazine. 

“Isn’t that what all subversives do?” Bluford’s Thurman asks.

Discouraged and without fanfare, Thurman boarded a train headed east to New York City. Here, he predicted, he’d find the Negro Nirvana, the site of the Black cultural Mecca. My heart swelled, too, as I saw and heard Thurman’s wild anticipation of joining the Harlem Renaissance; the collective contribution of such luminaries as the poet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston’s voice of freedom, the exuberant poetry of Countee Cullen, and the creative energies of others. It was an era marked by a burst of Black creativity in art, music and literature. 

“It wasn’t until I arrived that Labor Day in 1925 that I finally understood what Brother Brigham meant when he let loose his cry into the thin cracking air, ‘This is the place.’ I like that crazy dude,” recalls Thurman.

Thurman and his like-minded comrades founded the FIRE a literary journal devoted to younger negro artists, proclaiming the arrival of Black cultural creativity. The magazine published just one issue.

But Thurman’s time in Harlem, absorbing the street fair machinations, the broad landscape of freedom and the creative vibrancy of the thinkers and artists, the energy of the creative work helped to define his commitment “To create and to try to do it well, he said, that is all I expect from any creative person.” But alongside, a cloud of physical depletion and alcoholism haunted him. He was largely able to ignore it as long as he was writing, creating and absorbing the vitality of the scene. That is until he could no longer ignore his declining health.

Thurman left Harlem’s Niggerati Manor, named for the Niggerati Literati, and boarded the train headed for Salt Lake City, seeking the curative powers of the clear mountain air. After a brief stay in Salt Lake City, he traveled to Reno where he sought a final divorce from his angry, vituperative wife Louise. In the throes of her accusations of his homosexuality, she succeeded in stripping him of his royalties, past, present and in perpetuity. Thurman was left impoverished and ill. Thus began his slow march to death.

Still, he continued to climb to the pinnacle of creative excellence, publishing Blacker the Berry a novel about intra-racial prejudice; and collaborating with William Jourdan Rapp on the play Harlem which opened on Broadway to rave reviews.  Other highly lauded books followed. Yet others were met with mixed reviews or all-out rejections, as publishers feared commercial failure.

Drinking heavily and increasingly weakened by the wrenching cough he carried with him, he returned to New York to seek medical care at City Hospital on Welfare Island, a hospital that he’d ironically excoriated in his earlier book citing its deplorable conditions, the despicable staff and absence of care whose conditions he exposed as “one of the great horrors in American health care, right here in New York.”

 “We are all alone when we die, whether with everyone who has loved us or in a solitary cinderblock room,” said 32-year-old Wallace Thurman.

As the stage lights dimmed and the audience exploded in deafening applause, I had a vision, one of playwright Jennifer Nii and Wallace Thurman, standing back to back, arms outstretched, fingertips touching, in the literal manifestation of Socrates’ ideal of  “Two bodies, one spirit.”

  • Fire! by Jenifer Nii a one-actor show performed by Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman. Directed by Directed by Jerry Rapier with design by Maddy Ashton (set), Emma Belnap (lighting), Cheryl Ann Cluff (sound), and Aaron Swenson (costumes). Stage managed by Sammee Jackman.
  • When:  April 13 to April 23, 2023
  • Where: Plan-B Theatre in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, SLC
Linda Hunt
Linda Hunthttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Linda Hunt, an artist and arts activist, is the former Executive Director of the Foothill Cultural District, a consortium of Salt Lake City’s arts and culture organizations, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum of Utah and Hogle Zoo, among others. Prior to returning to her roots in Utah, she was the Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California where, according to her FBI file, she entered the pantheon of trouble-makers. Hunt is currently completing research for her forthcoming book, “Rappers Under the Gun: The U. S. Government’s War on Hip Hop.”

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