In Woolly Mammoth’s INCENDIARY, Dave Harris Doesn’t Pull Any Punches — Review

Washington D.C.

Nehassaiu deGannes| Photo: Teresa Castracane

Nathan Pugh
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June 24, 2023 3:15 PM

In 2019, culture critic Wesley Morris identified a new wave of Black playwrights (Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Aleshea Harris) whose plays hinged on experimental, jaw-dropping plot twists. “[These plays are] built like trap doors, figurative ones, and with wormholes, through which everybody falls: characters, audiences, props,” Morris wrote.  

Dave Harris, a Black playwright, poet, and performer, is no stranger to “trap door” shows. His play Tambo & Bones, which premiered off-Broadway in 2022, includes the audience confrontation and timeline hopping that are hallmarks of contemporary “trap door” playwriting. Yet Harris’ Incendiary, making its world premiere at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, isn’t built on twists in the same way. Instead of launching the production headfirst into an abyss, in Incendiary Harris takes the audience’s hand, and scene by scene, leads us further into the unrecognizable. The experience is less trap door, and more spiral staircase: audience members circle around the same themes and characters over and over again, until we look up and realize how far we are from where we started. It’s not a breathless headrush, but instead a winding, harrowing descent.

Incendiary opens on Tanya (Nehassaiu deGannes) buying a gun from her brother Manny (Brandon J. Pierce). Tanya has a perfect aim, and at first her polite, suburban mom demeanor provides a comedic contrast to her openness to violence. But there’s a ferociousness to Tanya as well. When Manny asks why she needs firearms, Tanya spits out “I care for taking care of mine. / And whether or not I have what I need, Imma still do what I need. / You got me?”

Shannon Dorsey and Nehassaiu deGannes | Photo: Teresa Castracane

We quickly put the pieces together: Tanya’s son Eric (Terrance Fleming) has been incarcerated for a decade, and is set to be executed by lethal injection on his birthday. Tanya’s plan is to free him by any means necessary, even if that means walking into the prison and shooting up anyone in her path. The majority of the show takes place episodically as she checks tasks off her list as if she was buying groceries: she gets guns, prepares a will with attorneys, checks in with her daughter Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey), bakes a cake, gets her hair done, and more.

Incendiary might be considered a sister show to Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is: both plays grapple with familial revenge set off by a fiery tragedy, and both feature all-Black casts. Aleshea Harris noted that her play “takes its cues from the ancient, the modern, the tragic, the Spaghetti Western, hip-hop, and Afropunk,” and the same could be said of Incendiary—although Dave Harris also swirls in the hypermodern, the farcical, video games, and Blaxploitation films. You may not expect to ever watch a scene that merges the aesthetics of The Matrix, Foxy Brown, and Mortal Kombat, but what a delight it is to stumble upon it here.

The play has found a perfect director in Monty Cole, who understands both the jagged sincerity and darkness lurking in every scene. For example, I found the character of Jasmine to be a slippery role on the page: she believes in therapy aphorisms, professes suicide ideation, and lingers on the sidelines for most of the show. Yet under Monty Cole’s direction and Dorsey’s skilled performance, this production makes Jasmine a stand-out role and fully realized woman. There’s a hesitation, a quiet contemplation to Jasmine onstage that’s refreshing when compared to other characters’ moral certainty.

That’s not to say that it isn’t incredible when this production just goes for it. Cole stages comedic scenes with incredible precision. Actor Breon Arzell dazzles as Tanya’s workout instructor Gerard, leading a masochistic workout class that’s utterly deranged and choreographed to a tee. And although she didn’t get one the night I saw the show, deGannes deserved a standing ovation for a masterful action scene full of surreal physical comedy.

Breon Arzell | Photo: Teresa Castracane

These jolts of absurdist comedy are key to Harris’ plan of luring the audience further into the story’s chaos and its disturbing, blunt revelations (some might say they’re twists, but there’s too much ominous foreshadowing for them to feel really out of place). Without giving too much away, the Chekhov’s gun set up in the show’s opening does go off. And while one might originally categorize Tanya in a recent trend of vindictive, brash, and triumphant parents (characters who attend the Toni Collette School of Mothering), Harris challenges Tanya’s belief systems in such grotesque ways that the audience at my performance was audibly upset. 

The surprising developments of this Black family seemed to land with a deadening thud for many of the audience members around me. The characters of Incendiary never speak explicitly about their race, yet it was clear to me that this family’s Blackness—when combined with their gross discussions, their illogical violence, what some would call their “madness”—had something to do with the audience’s aversion to the play’s last few scenes.

There’s a contemporary pressure, among both Black and non-Black audiences, to watch “positive” representations of Black characters. It’s a pressure Harris flouts. Some might compare him to writer Janine Nabers, who created the television show Swarm with a Black psychopath protagonist in order to break down the strong Black woman trope. Yet Harris is less concerned about counter-narratives to white-created stories, and more invested in the existential questions of selfhood. 

Everyone grapples with a fruitless search to pinpoint exactly what drives who they are: genetics, identity, the way we’re raised, our trauma, the stories we tell ourselves. Harris’ play embodies this universal search, this elemental struggle. But because Incendiary centers on characters who are Black, mentally disabled, or both, the audience around me could feel the histories Harris was brushing up against—the pathologization of Blackness, the stereotypes forced onto Black Americans—and the audience cooled the energy in the theater that was previously glowing.

Breon Arzell, Nehassaiu deGannes, and Brandon J. Pierce | Photo: Teresa Castracane

In the book Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, scholar Therí Alyce Pickens writes, “When speculative fiction writers suspend time, space, and culture, they force further apart the disjuncture between what is natural and what is cultural inheritance.” In Incendiary, Harris is exploring the disjuncture between who Tanya, Jasmine, and Eric might “naturally” be, and how the Black culture they’ve inherited has uncomfortably shaped them. My guess is that for most people, Incendiary is not “speculative” enough to feel truly immersive. Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, like Incendiary, are also grappling with the cultural inheritance of Black Americans. But their playwriting structures keep audiences at a distance, asking us to look at characters schematically instead of rooting for someone the way Harris initially asks us to whole-heartedly side with Tanya’s quest for justice.

Which begs the question: would Incendiary be a more successful show if it more closely resembled a “trap door” play? Do audiences only accept uncomfortable stories when they’re in highly conceptual shows? Will audiences not accept those same stories in plays that slowly, casually reveal horrors? 

If Incendiary were a “trap door” play, audiences might leave feeling more invigorated, more ready to discuss the show’s intricate, interlocking parts. In Incendiary, Dave Harris makes a compelling case for the “spiral staircase” form of playwriting: the show is a masterclass in dread, in realizing the path you’ve been following is far stranger than you once thought. Instead of pulling the rug from under you, Harris patiently leads you into the unknown. That patience is a dangerous kind of gift.

Incendiary is now in performance at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through June 25. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.

Washington D.C.
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