One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” — W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Printed just above the opening line of The Firestorm, a new play by Meridith Friedman, the words of Du Bois are the sentiment that lies just beneath the surface. Topically this is a timely play about politics and racial tensions in America, but substantially it is about the timelessness of the tension of the “twoness” within us all.
“Identity is a conflict between who you think you are, who you want to be, what other people see, what you want them to see, what you don’t want them to see and what happens when they see the thing you don’t want them to see,” Friedman says. “When they see the thing you don’t want them to see — that is intimacy and, for me at least, that’s when something really beautiful happens.”
On the surface, The Firestorm is a story about a white man with humble roots running for governor in Ohio and newly wed to a well-to-do black lawyer. Together, the two are crafting the beginnings of their political identity and marriage.
Beyond the political story is a more universal one about demons hidden in deeply buried secrets. As a younger man, the governor-to-be tried to join a fraternity and, as a part of rushing the house, painted “Go Home Nigger” on the door of a black student in his college. He never told anybody, including his wife, because he knew it was wrong but never took steps to deal with or amend the transgression. Twenty years later his political career and marriage hang in the balance.
Each character is caught between their many overlapping identities. In the difficulty of trying to reconcile these different selves, each grapples with the evasiveness of claiming a unified and “real” self.
The play is set in the round, giving 360 degree views of these personal and private conversations that gnaw at the most biting and tender topics of race and love. The added intimacy of this production decision heightens the visceral feel of the action as it unfolds and makes the viewers feel implicit in the drama.
“I wanted us to be aware of each other in the audience,” says Artistic Director Pesha Rudnick. “I wanted to strip away some of the theatrics that would take away from hearing the language of this play — to distill it.”
Unfolding loosely in two-person scenes, the language is offered up as nothing more than “kitchen table” conversation between lovers or coworkers. It is powerful because it is simple. It feels familiar, as if the actors on stage are giving life to unspoken thoughts lingering in the minds of Americans across the country.
Past productions of The Firestorm sought to play up the affability of the dialogue by setting it in hyper realistic kitchens and office scenes, but Local Theater Company chose a more streamlined and atmospheric approach, freeing the script from a time or place.
In its entirety, the set consists of four sleek and unassuming modular pieces. In between scenes, they are artfully rearranged in dance-like interludes orchestrated to the jazz of Nina Simone to suggest an office desk or kitchen table. Emphasized with minimal props and mostly devoid of detail, the exact interpretation is left to the imagination of the viewer.
“I made a very conscious effort to make it feel both very present, in a 2016 interpretation, and like it could exist anytime in the last 12 years,” Rudnick says. “I pared it down so that most of it is left to the audience’s own emotional reaction to the topics that are commented on. Whatever the audience’s viewpoint is and whatever they come in with, I want them to feel like it is present for them, now.”
The sparseness of the set highlights the worldliness of the inner lives of the political elite. Rather than being broadcast as spectacle, the play reveals their lives as ordinary. With blank sets, all focus is on the actor as she eats cold pizza out of the box after a long day or as, moments later, she spits it from her mouth in an angry outburst.
Down to the details, the play reveals the humanity and vulnerability that exists in the space between who we strive to be and who we really are.
In order to write such complex characters and relationships, Friedman had to look behind black and white, rich and poor, and start asking questions in hopes of undermining such labels. Before she started to write the play, she spent four months interviewing people like advisors from Obama’s 2008 campaign and interracial couples.
When she finally started to create the script, she found herself writing characters that were nothing like her. For a moment, she doubted whether she, a well-educated white woman, was the right person to tell this story about racial identity in America.
She admitted that she would never be able to truly understand someone else’s experience, but ultimately decided that the act of trying to understand was not only interesting but important.
“Today, as a 21st century American, to be accused of anything like racism is a super scary charge and something that you want to reactively push as far away from yourself as possible,” Friedman says. “But what I found just after that moment of discomfort was a far richer conversation that happens only when you confront your own ignorance and judgments of other people and actually try to understand where they come from.”
On the Bill: The Firestorm — presented by Local Theater Company. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Through Nov. 13.