CHECK IT OUT: The Fire This Time Festival

“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 “ -James Baldwin

That quote by famed literary icon James Baldwin is a staple on the website for The Fire This Time Festival, and speaks to its mission to provide captivating, conscious portrayals of the black experience and offer a platform for early-career playwrights of African descent to explore new voices, styles and challenging new directions for contemporary theater.

The festival, which kicks off its third season on January 16 with a panel discussion on diversity in contemporary theater, includes a four-night limited engagement of seven eclectic ten-minute plays and five staged readings (the panel discussion and readings are free) presented by the Horse Trade Theatre Group. According to Derek McPhatter, a playwright and lead producer of the festival, the founding playwright and executive producer Kelley Nicole Girod created the festival out of her frustration with the limitations and expectations placed on black playwrights – and the jockeying a playwright has to do to be considered legit.

“It was [Girod’s] experience, and mine as well, that the industry overall has a very limited view on what a black playwright should or can write,” says McPhatter. “So, The Fire This Time Festival tells the playwrights they have free reign to write about whatever they want.”

While there is no required theme or topic, last season, in the wake of high-profile bullying and gay suicides, several of the plays tackled homophobia. This season, audiences can expect to see riveting material about family dynamics, interracial relationships and bisexuality performed and interpreted by a multitude of talented actors, playwrights and directors from the black point of view.

“We’ve got folks performing and directing with credits on Broadway, television and film,” says McPhatter, whose work was featured in the first season of the festival. “The artistic process with The Fire This Time Festival is pretty unique. The playwrights from the prior season make recommendations for future playwrights to engage. So we invite playwrights to participate on a sort of referral basis. It’s worked really well so far, and has helped us diversify our artist roster. So, it’s not just who the producers know or like. We [also] give the playwrights free reign to recruit whoever they want to work with as directors and actors.”

Christopher Burris is directing Kevin R Free’s work in progress, The Crisis of The Negro Intellectual: Dream One.  The two previously worked together on Free’s uproarious comedy A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People, which had a very successful run in the 2010 New York City International Fringe Festival.

“The piece is a meditation on a few of the challenges associated with being Black and educated, and bougie in America,” says Burris about Negro Intellectual. “As with all Kevin R. Free plays, one can expect – in addition to the catchy title -witty banter, keen commentary on the current state of racial politics, and people doing and saying things that they probably should not do or say.”

Ultimately, the festival’s goal this season is not only to pack the 99-seat Kraine Theater every night, but also to continue to break down the barriers and preconceived notions of black theatre.

“I want audiences to walk away inspired and entertained,” says McPhatter. “I want audiences to leave with, hopefully, an expanded view of what’s possible in contemporary theater, particularly black theater.”

The Fire This Time Festival Tickets & Showtimes

  • Opening Date: January 16, 2012
  • Closing Date: January 25, 2012
The Kraine Theater
85 E. Fourth St.
New York, NY 10003