A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JERRY RAPIER AND JENIFER NII
Versions of this post also appear in the current issue of QSaltLake and on The Blocks SLC blog.
Our 2010 world premiere of FIRE! launched Salt Lake City's most prolific collaboration between a theatre company and a playwright in recent memory: Jenifer Nii has since premiered her plays THE SCARLET LETTER, SUFFRAGE, RUFF!, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, THE WEIRD PLAY, and THE AUDACITY; her short plays "PDA," "Whiplash," and "Control_Alt_Delete" as part of SLAM; her monologues "Damned If I Do" and "Spam" as part of (IN)DIVISIBLE, and "Influencer" as part of RADIO SLAM.
In the fall of 2021, she was diagnosed with hippocampal atrophy: portions of her brain are calcifying. She is no longer able to write plays and is losing her ability to communicate in any form.
This revival of FIRE! is our love letter to Jenifer and her work and features Carleton Bluford returning to the role of Wallace Thurman.
Wallace Thurman was a queer Black man in Salt Lake City at the turn of the previous century. He attended West High School, the University of Utah, and Calvary Baptist Church.
He was also the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.
And he has been erased from Utah history.
FIRE! is a play for now, connecting two Utah writers of color separated by a century, the careers of both cut tragically short. Revisiting Jenifer’s first work as her final Plan-B production is a fitting farewell to a barrier-breaking writer in conversation with and celebration of another.
In 2010, FIRE! focused on the power of this place we call home. In 2023, the play comes full circle, insisting that kindred spirits Jenifer Nii and Wallace Thurman claim their space in Utah history through the power of Carleton Bluford’s singular performance, who returns to the role he created in 2010.
Following is an email conversation between artistic director Jerry Rapier and playwright Jenifer Nii that spanned most of 2022, whenever Jenifer was able to respond.
Jerry Rapier, artistic director: I know you don’t like to talk about yourself. This is the time to do that. Truly. I love you and I want to preserve what we can while we can. What inspired you to pursue playwriting?
Jenifer Nii, playwright: I saw a Marsha Norman play at the University of Utah that really knocked my socks off. I hadn’t had an experience like it before, with any other art form I’d been exposed to previously. Something about the experience of being in a tiny theatre with other folks, sharing in something thought-provoking, gut punching, eye opening – something happening right then, right there. I was really moved, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Jerry: So how did you become part of it?
Jenifer: I wish I could remember better. I know that very shortly after I saw that Norman play, I wrote a really angsty play, copying formats from a printed play I got a hold of, in which I think I just wrote down a lot of painful things and tried to smash them into a story. I wrote it in, I want to say, a week? Somehow, that play got passed around, and somehow made it to you. I still don’t know how it happened, but when you called to talk about it, and then to talk about working on what became FIRE!, I remember just laughing at how ridiculously fortunate I was.
Jerry: How would you describe your writing style?
Jenifer: I’m not trained, so I guess…ignorance?
Jerry: You spent a good part of your professional life as a reporter. How did that inform your playwriting?
Jenifer: Part of what I loved about journalism was the fact that it required a lot of research, and constant learning. On any reporting “beat,” you have to work really hard to know your subject, so you understand nuance and context in addition to whatever is happening to spur the story of the day. I learned to really love research and study, which ended up helping me a lot in my play writing. Especially when I was writing about events or people who actually existed, like Mr. Thurman. I knew it wasn’t enough just to read everything I could that he’d written. I also had to understand the period, the places, who his peers were and what THEY were creating, so I could get a better sense of the factors that may have been pushing/pulling him.
Jerry: How do you know when you’re ready to share a play with an audience?
Jenifer: I don’t ever feel ready. Ever.
Jerry: So how do you let go and let it happen?
Jenifer: Ha! Mostly, I stop when I’ve hit the submission deadline, and I close my eyes really tight and hit “send” and hope it’s OK. I hope I’ve given the rest of the team something interesting enough to work with.
Jerry: What does it feel like the first time you watch someone else watch one of your plays?
Jenifer: You know, I don’t know that I’ve ever done that. When I’m watching theatre, I tend to really get caught up in what’s happening on stage. I’m really awestruck by the work I see the actors doing bringing stories to life, and I’m looking at costumes flowing, and the light and sets and sound.
I do know that I’ve been really gobsmacked by audiences when the lights come up after the show ends. How kind people are, and how wonderful it is that they’ve come to support a show.
Jerry: What do you find most interesting about Wallace Thurman?
Jenifer: He was so far along. He saw and thought about and understood complex issues enough to shine a light on them – looking out, and looking within. I don’t know if that makes sense. But he was devoted to fomenting change and growth – which means that he was willing to ask questions of and even criticize his own community, his friends, himself. That takes work, and courage.
Jerry: Which complex issues specifically?
Jenifer: Seeing where other people can improve is relatively easy. Seeing where I and Mine can improve takes more work and courage, in my opinion. Thurman was part of a movement wherein people of color were (re)claiming their voices as artists. Thurman was one of few voices saying, “Yes we are a part of a movement to free ourselves from oppression – racial and societal and artistic. But in our fight against these oppressions and injustices, we ought not forget what we are fighting for and who we are fighting with, so that we end up elevating the whole. We have to expect more from ourselves, the very best of ourselves, so we become and show who we really are.” I think he was saying “Yes, we can be artists, because we are human. But we should aspire to be artists who create art that is of quality.
Jerry: If he were alive today, what would you want to ask him?
Jenifer: I’d want to know if he felt loved. I desperately hope he did.
Jerry: If he were alive today, what would you want him to know about you?
Jenifer: That I’m better for having studied his life, and that I am grateful.
Jerry: What specifically about your study of his life bettered yours? Which of his works that you read impacted you the most and why?
Jenifer: If it was available and he wrote it, or wrote ABOUT it, I tried to read it.
I stole one thing, where he asks, “Where are ours? Where are our Dickens’s?”
Jerry: In what ways are you similar?
Jenifer: I think I really was inspired by his questioning nature, and his desire to understand.
Jerry: In what ways are you different?
Jenifer: I think he had the strength to act more on his curiosity, and his passions, than I have.
Jerry: You and I have talked about how complicated it was to grow up here in Utah as a person of color. What commonality do you see between your experience growing up here and that of Wallace Thurman’s?
Jenifer: Ha! I was just talking with someone, and the person said something about how I was one of the “safe” “colored” people. Which is something I’ve heard a lot, but have struggled to understand/navigate. And I remember how struck I was when I was researching Thurman that HE felt he was considered “too Black,” even within the creative, “progressive” communities he inhabited. There are nuances within nuances when it comes to issues of race.
Jerry: What do you like most about your play FIRE!?
Jenifer: Carleton Bluford.
Jerry: That’s production-specific though. What do you like about your script? What is your favorite line or passage and why?
Jenifer: It is actually the Terence quote, “I am a human being…”
I like it because it was something I stumbled across during my research of Black writers. It doesn’t have anything to do with Thurman, but I think he would’ve liked that I’ve stood them up together, Thurman and Terence. Placing that quote in the play was my personal hug to Thurman. It was my way of saying thank you.
Jerry: What does it feel like to be revisiting this play at this time in your life?
Jenifer: Plan-B has given me more opportunities than I’ve deserved, and this is the culmination of that. I don’t know of another playwright who has been given a start, and a finish. An introduction, and a loving goodbye. I am blessed.
Artistically, it’s fun, because I can see Baby Writer in FIRE!. But also, I can see how much I was able to learn from it. I can see how FIRE! showed me that I could do more – not just from a “write pretty” perspective, but also with props and costumes and sets and movement and lighting and sound. In FIRE!, I got to work with professionals for the first time who showed me that I could, and must, think about more than just the words the actors said on stage – that there was a team of people who really could build whole worlds, full of color and depth and motion and sound, and the only thing limiting them (us) was me.
Jerry: Let’s strike that last phrase. Because it’s not true We started with FIRE! as part of WALLACE, and then THE SCARLET LETTER, then SUFFRAGE, then RUFF!, then KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, then THE WEIRD PLAY, and then THE AUDACITY. And don’t forget the SLAM plays and your pieces for (in)divisible and RADIO SLAM. Could you give me a few sentences about what each of those were like for you?
Jenifer: I wish I could. I’ve spent the past few weeks in the Badlands trying to remember, and I have only little snippets left.
I remember feeling so awestruck and honored to work with David Fetzer on THE SCARLET LETTER, and I remember doing a whole radio interview not knowing what I was talking about because I was just so giddy, listening to him talk about how hard it was to play someone so agonal and pathetic.
I remember April Fossen getting a mid-monologue ovation during SUFFRAGE, and I remember pumping my fist in the air like I was at a football game.
I remember feeling so warm and happy watching RUFF! because it was about [my dog] Cora and everyone should know Cora.
I remember the final moments of THE WEIRD PLAY, and what I saw on stage was just about exactly what I envisioned when I wrote it. That’s really, really rare, and magical, and a blessing.
Jerry: And getting more personal: how does your hippocampal atrophy diagnosis affect how you see your body of work? Would you be willing to talk about how Housebox Life came to be and what that experience is like for you? [Jenifer sold her house and bought an RV after her diagnosis. She and her dogs are driving around the Western U.S. to experience the nature she was always a little afraid of. A daily check-in protocol is in place to ensure she’s safe.]
Jenifer: Because it affects my memory, this experience is teaching me to try not to get too attached to things. I don’t know which memories I’ll be allowed to keep, and what I’ll have to let go of. I just have to try to pay attention to the moments as they happen, and to try to be as involved as I can be in creating positive, meaningful moments.
That’s why I embarked on Housebox Life. I want to see as much as I can of what is beautiful in the world while I still can. Not so I’ll have something to remember, but to have as many beautiful “now’s” as I can.
Jerry: What do you hope the audience will be talking about on their way home from FIRE!?
Jenifer: I hope they’ll be talking about how they’ll share his story.
Jerry: What are your thoughts on the erasure of Wallace Thurman from Utah history?
Jenifer: He’s someone we can and should be so proud of, as Utahns, for all the right reasons. He was audacious. He was a pioneer. He was principled and strong. He saw potential in people and communities, and was courageous enough to ask tough, sometimes unpopular questions in the hope that in finding honest answers we’d rise up stronger together.
Jerry: What does FIRE! have to say to high school students?
Jenifer: I think high school is when a lot of young folks begin asking the tough questions of themselves and others. I hope FIRE! says to them, “Ask. Ask out loud. Keep asking.”
Plan-B Theatre’s revival of Jenifer Nii’s FIRE! runs April 13-23, 2023 with Carleton Bluford returning as Wallace Thurman, directed by Jerry Rapier.