Buckle up

Local Theater Company’s world premiere of ‘Flame Broiled. or the ugly play’ asks you to take a hard, hilarious look in the mirror

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Left to right: Emma Messenger, Saxton Jay Walker, Gary Norman and Ilasiea Gray.
Michael Ensminger

Flame Broiled, the newest offering from Local Theater Company, wastes no time. 

“Buckle up, please,” a projection instructs. Images of American history come and go, from colonial days, to store fronts advertising “Negro Sales,” to Emmett Till’s beaten and bloated face, to Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, to the death of Eric Garner, to a news article announcing Trump’s impeachment inquiry. 

“Buckle the fuck up.” 

This play’s not messing around — it’s got 80 minutes and a load of uncomfortable stuff to talk about. Get in, sit down, shut up and hold on. 

Penned by Broadway actor and freshly minted Denverite Rodney Hicks, Flame Broiled. or the ugly play uses 15 razor-sharp vignettes to dissect the malignant tumor that is American prejudice. With humor as his guiding light, Hicks dives deep into the American psyche, illuminating not just the obvious ways we alienate and belittle one another, but the subtle ways we hold bias without truly understanding — or caring. 

Flame Broiled is a play about race, yes, but Hicks — a gay black man — doesn’t ignore the intersections between gender, culture and sexuality. As the title suggests, it’s ugly, like when a college educated and otherwise “woke” black woman demands that a gender nonconforming white person identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, or when a white college student calls a black friend the n-word in a desperate and misguided attempt to be cool. A white woman at a hair salon condescendingly muses on every black stereotype she knows before demanding her stylist give her braids, telling her friend, “There’s no patent on who can wear them.” A mixed race family visits the place where Emmett Till was lynched and one of the children wonders why people would do such things to one another. 

“‘Cause some people ugly,” his sister responds nonchalantly. 

And that’s the point: “You’ve got to get through the ugly to get to the joy,” Hicks recently told John Moore of DCPA News

Inspired by George C. Wolfe’s 1986 sketch play The Colored Museum, Flame Broiled turns over a lot of stones in quick succession. 

“The unique thing about Rodney’s writing is I sort of think of it as poetry,” says Local’s founding artistic director Pesha Rudnick. “Each relationship and each circumstance in these vignettes are immediate. They’re fast, they’re furious, they’re raw.”

And they’re wickedly funny, thanks in part to a stellar cast of just four actors (two black, two white) who take on the roles of more than 30 characters. 

Emma Messenger and Illasiea Gray are ripe with righteous indignation in separate vignettes set in a hair salon, but they find equally righteous innocence together as two children who can’t understand why they aren’t allowed to play together anymore. Saxton Jay Walker’s eyes well with tears as a game show host who realizes that he’s lost himself to society’s bigotry. Gary Norman likewise taps into a deep well of pain as he wonders how — as a 53-year-old gay man in Alabama — he can ever truly be himself. 

Nate Bertone’s set design turns the Carsen Theater into an urban Pee Wee’s Playhouse, a kind of fun house version of reality. Bernadette Sefic (aka Slime Kid) added original tagging that rewards the observant with “Easter eggs” of symbolism and poetry. 

But the mirrors in this fun house aren’t warped. Flame Broiled is an uninterrupted look in a polished mirror. 

“It’s a challenge to the audience to recognize that every person does have a bias of some sort,” says Nick Chase, associate artistic director for Local. “I think that’s the call to action this play leaves me with, is to recognize that the onus is on me to take responsibility for those biases and to do the difficult work. I think for a Boulder theater audience it’s going to be exciting and challenging because there are a lot of progressive minded people here, there are a lot of people who are very engaged. But there’s a sense that people don’t know how to improve themselves, and while I think this play doesn’t give you the map, it at least allows you to re-engage with that question.”  

Local will host two post-show events immediately following Sunday matinees (Nov. 3 and Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m.) featuring authorities on race, bias and privilege. On Nov. 7 and 14, join the cast, creative team and fellow audience members for casual conversation, small bites and drinks at Embassy Suites at 9 p.m.

ON THE BILL: ‘Flame Broiled. or the ugly play’ — presented by Local Theater Company. Oct 24-Nov. 17. Dairy Arts Center, Carsen Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets are $20-$40, thedairy.org.