In his interview in Woolly Mammoth’s playbill, playwright Dave Harris says, “How do you separate what you’re doing because of your own free will and your own choice, or what you are doing because this is what you’ve learned from someone else? Is there a difference between those things?” To carry that a step further… and does it matter? When it comes to consequences for your actions, does it matter what precipitated those choices? Well, sometimes it does. Does anyone blame Jean Valjean for stealing that loaf of bread? He was starving in a brutal, class-based society. In the world premiere of “Incendiary” directed by Monty Cole, Harris makes the question much more difficult to answer because of the horrifying choice that has been made by Eric, played by Terrence Fleming in a brilliant performance.
…the wild ride provided by this exceptional cast, director, and designers is not to be missed this season.
The play opens as Tanya (the heroic Nehassaiu deGannes) receives a lesson in target shooting. She seems to have a natural gift for aim. She feels such elation at her successful shooting, she buys a full arsenal of weapons from her brother Manny (smart and funny Brandon J. Pierce). Here we learn of her plan to break her son Eric out of prison on his birthday, also the day of his scheduled execution. So far, so terrific! The characters, the dialogue, and the action are fast-paced and hilarious.
Harris’s writing style is inspired by video games. As Tanya readies herself for the prison attack, her sense of capability increases with each step of preparation—like progressing through levels of difficulty in a game. Tanya visits the law firm of Marcus and Markus to prepare her will. The two lawyers (Breon Arzell and Brandon J. Pierce) display a dizzy parody of justice in this sharply directed comedic scene. Breon Arzell steals the show twice more as Gerard, Tanya’s hairdresser, and Joshua, her personal trainer. Enhanced by Mextly Couzin’s provocative lighting and Samantha Jones’ boisterous costumes, Gerard suddenly appears as a fabulous Satan—his staff topped with a comb, horn-like styling instruments protruding from his head, and a long ponytail. Gerard assures Tanya she needs a new hairstyle “for her soul.”
“Incendiary” is full of contradictions, wild emotions and actions, and chilling stillness. For the most part it works, but a day later I’m still disturbed by some unanswered questions and jarring shifts in tone. Along the way we are introduced to Tanya’s other child, Jasmine (the lovely Shannon Dorsey), five years older than Eric. We learn of the violence of Tanya’s husband and his demise by fire, but nothing quite explains Tanya’s ambivalence toward her daughter. Again and again, the audience gasped with Tanya’s casual dismissal of Jasmine. Impatient with Jasmine’s conversation as Tanya prepares Eric’s birthday cake, she says “Run along, I’ll pick strawberries faster without you” and “You’re doing it wrong!” as Jasmine attempts to mix the batter. Tanya idealizes Eric and barely tolerates Jasmine. Tanya believes, inaccurately, that she herself saved the family when her husband was terrorizing them and that Jasmine did nothing, did not even react. Jasmine was five years old at the time. Even if Tanya’s memory was accurate, this hardly justifies Tanya’s disinterest in her. Something is lacking here that distracts from the story and the audience’s acceptance of Tanya’s mission. Jasmine’s psychiatrist advises her to “stop thinking about your mother and think about the choices you made.” We don’t know what any of those choices were.
We do learn Eric’s choice that landed him on death row and it is impossible to justify. Harris states, “There is perhaps a terrifying proposal at the heart of this play about the selfish nature of love, and the selfish nature of violence, about their abilities to completely coexist.” The question of nature or nurture is an old one, extrapolated here to ask: are our choices are own, or are we capable only of repeating our parent’s mistakes? Is sociopathy genetically inherited and inescapable? Since attending opening night, I have found no comfort in Harris’ proposition of the coexistence of love and violence. I was relieved that Jasmine survives in the end. and is the only savior in this play. The play is profoundly disturbing, and I am unable to stop thinking about it. The video game analogy works up until the end. A game usually has a winner and I’m not sure there is one in this play, but the wild ride provided by this exceptional cast, director, and designers is not to be missed this season.
Running time: One hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: This play contains discussion of gun violence, solitary confinement, carceral violence, generational trauma, suicidal ideation, the death penalty, domestic abuse, arson, and violence against children/schools. The play contains depictions of gun violence and prison. Gunshots are included in the performance.
“Incendiary” runs through June 25, 2023 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. For more information and tickets, call (202) 393-3939 or send an email to email@example.com or go online. BOX OFFICE HOURS: Saturday–Tuesday: Closed; Wednesday–Friday: 12–6pm; During perfromances, Wednesday – Sunday: 12 – 6 pm. Regular ticket prices are $39 – $70. For patrons under age 30 tickets are available for $20-30. Pay What You Will is available; see the website for details. Talkbacks: Join Woolly Mammoth staff and the cast to discuss themes in the play June 15 (evening) and June 25 (matinee). COVID Guidelines: Masks are highly recommended but no longer required while in the theatre and lobby.