Woolly Mammoth Theatre should put up a sign at the entrance to the auditorium for people who are going to see Incendiary. The sign should read: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” The show checks all the boxes for time-limited audiences who are trying to balance their arts budget. It’s entertaining. It’s a good choice for a date night. It’s money well spent. It is also a lung-bruisingly hilarious and deeply terrifying play about what makes a human being human.
Incendiary’s protagonist, Tanya — Nehassaiu Degannes is indomitable in the role — belongs to that dramaturgical sorority of mothers who do not play: characters like Mother Courage (Brecht), Medea (Euripides), Madea (Tyler Perry), Lena Younger (A Raisin in the Sun), Eleanor Iselin (The Manchurian Candidate), and Mama Rose (Gypsy). Tanya’s plight may also bring to mind the newspaper images of Angela Davis (who at one time was on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list) and Assata Shakur (who fled to Cuba, where she still lives).
The play uses Tanya’s journey to track the persistent presence and legacy of one family’s trauma as it shows up in her own life and that of her daughter and son.
As the play begins, Tanya is about to put into action a plan to get Eric (Terence Fleming) — her grown-up baby boy, her second born, and her favorite child — out of jail. She intends to break him out of jail on the night before his scheduled execution by lethal injection. (The date of his execution coincides with his birthday.) If she has to die in order to free her son — or, alternatively, if she has to kill all 700-plus guards in the prison — so be it: it’s a mother’s duty. Her preparations include: she’ll need guns, she’ll need to her hair done, and she’ll have to bake a birthday cake for her baby boy.
For most shows, this premise alone would be “over the top.” But Incendiary doesn’t seem to have a “top.” And maybe that’s appropriate. The intransigence of America’s relationship with its citizens of African descent/heritage is nothing if not over the top. And this senseless intransigence is part of what this show is about. So it makes sense in trying to tell this family’s story that playwright Dave Harris brings out the big guns. Combine elements of all the Greek tragedies and all the Greek comedies and then stir in some Thelma and Louise and Kill Bill. And, voilà! You get Incendiary: except that this story is rooted not in Greek mythology but in the mythology of African Americans. There’s a lot of soul and R&B in the pre-show music that everyone in the audience will sing along to. Which only goes to underscore how intertwined the universality of Blackness is with the universality of the question of being fully human: a question that Incendiary is committed to addressing.
Harris uses storytelling techniques from anime, video games, and action movies to convey the delirium and uncertainty of his premise in visceral contemporary terms.
“The journey of the play operates a lot like a video game where you have a protagonist who in each level finds something new that they then take to fight the final boss. There’s a lot of fun in that,” writes Harris in the show’s playbill.
Director Monty Cole immerses the audience in the story in two ways. First, through a sound design that the audience members feel in their bodies almost more than they hear it. And secondly through the presence of the family house, which is onstage as the audience enters the theater.
Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has pushed the façade of this house up to the apron of the stage so that there is no room for anything else. This house takes up space in the theater the same way a greedy person takes up space in the undersized seats on a city bus. The audience feels squeezed, intruded upon. Where are the actors going to act, you might wonder. It is as if the mansions of Psycho, Sunset Boulevard, or The Haunting of Hill House had been converted to a vinyl-paneled, lower-middle-class dwelling in a mid-20th-century suburb. It evokes a sense of dread. Tanya’s house is The House of Atreus, The House of Dies Drear, and The House of LaBeija rolled into one.
The cast is athletic and energetic. It is exhilarating and inspiring to watch them interpret the text. I often think that we are living in a golden age of theater performance. This collection of performers does nothing to convince me otherwise. These are some of the most highly skilled actors you are likely to see anywhere.
Shannon Dorsey, a Washington, DC, stalwart, is always surprising and delightful. Dorsey plays Tanya’s daughter, Jasmine, whose humanity has been crushed and distorted by the family dynamics. Dorsey shows us the everyday devastation of silent and invisible trauma and describes her coping process saying, “I try not to expect anything.”
Terrance Fleming’s Eric takes the audience to its deepest point of self-examination and challenge. Fleming is deliberate and relentless in presenting the character’s clarity around acceptance of the fact that after committing a heinous crime he is truly irredeemable. “It’s wild the way trauma broadens your imagination,” he says. The scenes with Eric and his mother are mesmerizing as Fleming relentlessly takes us further and further into Eric’s descent into what can without irony be called a heart of darkness.
Breon Arzell and Brandon J. Pierce as twinned attorneys Marcus and Markus are straight out of Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter’s tea party, with matching typewriters and desks on casters. They are as agile as Serena and Venus Williams volleying quips back and forth across their office.
Both actors play multiple roles (including Tanya’s brother, her gay and spiritually connected hairdresser, and her fitness trainer). They play each role memorably, hysterically, and exhaustingly.
Nethassaiu deGannnes’ portrayal of Tanya is what grounds the play as she nimbly navigates the extremes of despair and determination in the face of the hopeless reality in which she and her family live.
It’s interesting that Harris is a poet. James Baldwin once noted, “The poets are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Union leaders don’t. Statesmen don’t.” Incendiary progresses in its saga by following a poetic logic, not the linear logic of debate or politics. While the struggle to become fully human beings is a universal and daily struggle, for centuries “Black” folks — people of African heritage and descent — have expended huge amounts of energy on their own behalf to demonstrate in every way possible to everyone else on the planet that we are in fact human.
With Incendiary, Harris refocuses our attention to consider that maybe human beings do bad things to others and ourselves because it makes us feel good. And maybe we do that quite often. He entices us to think about how we learn and practice this in our families. At one point Tanya, in response to her daughter Jasmine’s appeal for guidance, advises her: “Marry the man you want your son to be.” When mother and son are face-to-face in his prison cell, Eric says to his mother Tanya: “You think I’m my father. No. No. No. I am who I want to be.”
It may be that only by engaging in such poetic logic as Harris does with Incendiary can we move in the direction that will lead to us human beings finally rendering the philosophy of white supremacy, its real effects, and the people who embody and practice that philosophy irrelevant to the lives of other human beings.
And I can hardly wait to see more of Harris’ work again and soon.
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission.
Incendiary plays through June 25, 2023, at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($31–$55) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-393-3939 (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.), or in person at the Sales Office at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.).
The digital playbill for Incendiary is here.
COVID Safety: Masks are now optional in all public spaces at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. We still encourage anyone who would like to wear a mask to please do so and will have masks available for those who need one. Woolly’s full COVID policy is available here.
Written by Dave Harris
Directed by Monty Cole
Tanya: Nehassaiu deGannes
Markus/Gerard/Joshua, u/s Manny: Breon Arzell
Manny/Marcus: Brandon J. Pierce
Jasmine: Shannon Dorsey
u/s Tanya: Karyn-Siobhan Robinson
u/s Male Roles: Ricky DeVon Hall
u/s Jasmine: Fatou Jackson
Vocals: Carly Harvey
Keyboard, Synthesizers, percussion: Sqore
Guitars, Bass: Ryan Buell
Drums, Additional Mixing: Dave Ray
Crew & Creative Team
Director: Monty Cole
Scenic Designer: Andrew Boyce
Lighting Designer: Mextly Couzin
Costume Designer: Samantha Jones
Sound Designer: Tosin Olufolabi
Fight/Intimacy Choreographer: Chelsea Pace
Stage Manager: Leigh Robinette
Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez
Asst Director/BOLD Rising Director: Nailah Unole didanas’ea Harper-Malveaux
Asst Stage Manager: Jazzy Davis
Asst Dramaturg: Fatima Dyfan
Hair & Wig Stylist: Greg Bazemore
Production Assistant: Briana J. Padgett
Lighting Programmer: Kristen Roth
Light Board Operator: Jaimee Fricklas
Sound Board Operator: Heather Hernandez
Production Props Supervisor: Amy Kellett
Wardrobe Crew: Thomas Nagata
Props Run Crew: Conri Connell
Crew Cover: Michael Turner