Jenifer Nii’s play starring Carleton Bluford as Wallace Thurman returns to Plan-B Theatre
Wallace Thurman was a queer Black man in Salt Lake City at the turn of the previous century. He attended West High School, the University of Utah, and Calvary Baptist Church.
He was also the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.
And he has been erased from Utah history.
FIRE! is a play for now, connecting two Utah writers of color separated by a century, the careers of both cut tragically short. Revisiting Jenifer’s first work as her final Plan-B production is a fitting farewell to a barrier-breaking writer in conversation with and celebration of another.
In addition to launching Jenifer’s playwriting career, FIRE! provided Carleton Bluford the unique opportunity to inhabit a character who faced many of the challenges he also faced growing up Black in Utah. This serendipitous fusion of actor and role gave Carleton the confidence to view himself as an Actor with a capital A, as well as sparking his own playwriting career.
In 2010, FIRE! focused on the power of this place we call home. In 2023, the play comes full circle, insisting that kindred spirits Jenifer Nii and Wallace Thurman claim their space in Utah history through the power of Carleton Bluford’s singular performance.
Bottom of Form
In the fall of 2021, playwright Jenifer Nii was diagnosed with hippocampal atrophy: portions of her brain are calcifying. She is no longer able to write plays and is losing her ability to communicate in any form. The following Q&A is excerpted from a series of conversations she and artistic director Jerry Rapier recorded between the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022, compiled by Education Coordinator Sharah Meservy.
What inspired you to pursue playwriting? I saw a Marsha Norman play at the University of Utah that really knocked my socks off. I hadn’t had an experience like it before with any other art form I’d been exposed to previously. Something about the experience of being in a tiny theatre with other folks, sharing in something thought-provoking, gut-punching, eye-opening — something happening right then, right there. I was really moved, and I wanted to be a part of it.
You spent a good part of your professional life as a reporter. How did that inform your playwriting? Part of what I loved about journalism was the fact that it required a lot of research and constant learning. On any reporting “beat,” you have to work really hard to know your subject, so you understand nuance and context in addition to whatever is happening to spur the story of the day. I learned to really love research and study, which ended up helping me a lot in my playwriting. Especially when I was writing about events or people who actually existed, like Mr. Thurman. I knew it wasn’t enough just to read everything I could that he’d written. I also had to understand the period, the places, who his peers were, and what THEY were creating, so I could get a better sense of the factors that may have been pushing/pulling him.
What do you find most interesting about Wallace Thurman? He was so far along. He saw and thought about and understood complex issues enough to shine a light on them — looking out and looking within. I don’t know if that makes sense. But he was devoted to fomenting change and growth — which means that he was willing to ask questions of and even criticize his own community, his friends, himself. That takes work and courage. Thurman was part of a movement wherein people of color were (re)claiming their voices as artists. Thurman was one of few voices saying, “Yes, we are a part of a movement to free ourselves from oppression — racial and societal and artistic. But in our fight against these oppressions and injustices, we ought not forget what we are fighting for and who we are fighting with so that we end up elevating the whole. We have to expect more from ourselves, the very best of ourselves, so we become and show who we really are.” I think he was saying, “Yes, we can be artists, because we are human. But we should aspire to be artists who create art that is of quality.”
If he were alive today, what would you want to ask him? I’d want to know if he felt loved. I desperately hope he did.
If he were alive today, what would you want him to know about you? That I’m better for having studied his life, and that I am grateful.
In what ways are you similar? I think I really was inspired by his questioning nature and his desire to understand.
You and I have talked about how complicated it was to grow up in Utah as a person of color. What commonality do you see between your experience growing up here and that of Wallace Thurman’s? Aha! I was just talking with someone, and the person said something about how I was one of the “safe” colored people. Which is something I’ve heard a lot but have struggled to understand/navigate. And I remember how struck I was when I was researching Thurman that he felt he was considered “too Black,” even within the creative, “progressive” communities he inhabited. There are nuances to race issues.
What are your thoughts on the erasure of Wallace Thurman from Utah history? I think he is someone we can be so proud of, as Utahns, for all the right reasons. He was audacious. He was a pioneer. He was principled and strong. He saw potential in people and communities and was courageous enough to ask tough, sometimes unpopular questions in the hope that, in finding honest answers, we’d rise up stronger together.
What do you like most about your play FIRE!? Carleton Bluford.
What do you hope the audience will be talking about on their way home from FIRE!? I hope they’ll be talking about how they’ll share his story.
Jenifer Nii has premiered her plays FIRE!, THE SCARLET LETTER, SUFFRAGE, RUFF!, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, THE WEIRD PLAY, and THE AUDACITY at Plan-B Theatre. This revival of FIRE!, running April 13–23, is the company’s love letter to her and her work, with Carleton Bluford returning as Wallace Thurman, directed by Jerry Rapier. It will be accompanied by a free Utah Black History Museum exhibit April 14–16. Tickets and details at planbtheatre.org/fire