A 2021 CHAT ABOUT FIRE!
In the fall of 2021, we were invited to present a Zoom reading of FIRE! as part of the Utah Humanities Book Fair and Salt Lake County's Welcoming Week. The response to that reading led to the revival of FIRE! opening next week. Following is section of the post-reading discussion, led by Willy Palomo.
Jenifer Nii, playwright: I got the sense that he struggled with wanting his work to be better, you know, to be poetic in a [Langston] Hughes kind of way. He never quite got there, he felt it, and it hurt. Some of his collaborations were well received—the play that was on Broadway—but his solo work, um, his novels, struggled.
Willy Palomo, Host: Thurman’s magazine Fire!! [read the full magazine] only lasted one issue. It included some of the best names of its time. It’s also what you chose to name this play. Why?
Jenifer: One of the things I really loved about that magazine was, was that it emerged in a time and a place, this physical place that brought together all of these amazing, creative, expansive, rebellious souls that were stretching. They spoke in that moment, in that place, together. It was heartbreaking that it didn’t last, but it was beautiful that it even happened.
Jerry Rapier, Director: It’s hard for me to fathom the pace at which they were creating work. A single brownstone in Harlem, where all of these literary figures were hanging out together, living together at times, sleeping together at times, but mostly creating. What an incredible, combustible environment. They were always on to the next thing, so much was bursting out of them.
Willy: What do you each like most about Thurman?
Carleton: He wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted to say, whether it was liked or not: he just did it. That’s one of the things I’m learning: to be brave. That line towards the end of the play, “to manifest your own clarion call, to have a voice and to use it.” I mean, this guy used his voice and I love that.
Jerry: He didn't seem to feel inferior to or lesser than the subjects that he wanted to tackle.
Jenifer: This was a man who had baggage, heavy baggage and was, was messy, was flawed. I rather than finding some of his messiness to be like “Ugh,” it made me want to know him, it made me want to sit down with him and say, “Hey, tell me about you.” I was really struck with with all that he carried.
Jerry: I am saddened that he didn’t live long enough for us to know more about him, to experience more of his work. He bounced around a lot as a kid and his grandma, Ma Jack, ran a saloon out of her home, which was the root of his alcoholism. I didn’t really connect this until just now: 1918 is when he first got sick. He missed a lot of school because he was sick with the flu. So he finished high school later than he should have. Due to a pandemic.
Willy: What a striking parallel for our own time. Why do you think Wallace Thurman’s story is important for Utah today?
Jerry: I’ve lived in Utah the smallest percentage of my life of the three of us and I’m constantly surprised by the erasure of people of color from the history of this state. As a significant literary figure in global literature, in national literature, Thurman should be recognized as such in Utah, where he has the least visibility.
Carleton: I’ll just say representation. When I first did this play, I was so shocked that I was learning about someone who was exactly like me, from the place that I am from, that I had never heard of growing up. I had always felt a little bit out of pocket. Playing this person who was also very out of pocket, openly out of pocket, and also was a very important figure in the Harlem Renaissance just gave me solace, and hope.
Jenifer: The more we know about how diverse our communities are and have been, the more we can start to see truly see one another as community. If we only see part of us, the part that isn’t seen suffers. Seeing more, seeing deeper, is where, um, art can help. Thurman said, “Look at us!” Thurman is part of us.
Jerry: This play felt incredibly specific in 2010 but now it feels like Jenifer wrote this astonishing piece of literature earlier today for this moment, this evening. It feels urgent.
Jenifer: Carleton showed today the power that lies in the act of acting. He is brave in a way I can’t be. The challenge for me is to find the personal and see what I can do dramatically to give that question bones and skin and blood and a heart. For actors like Carleton. You just saw what he can do, in a reading, on Zoom, no less! That level of vulnerability is just, um, well in this case in particular … Carleton is just …
Jenifer: ... that level of vulnerability comes from an equal level of strength.