Flame Broiled. or the ugly play, now in a world premiere with Local Theater Company, is brief — roughly 75 minutes — as well as loud, content-crowded and passionate. Author Rodney Hicks is attempting to accomplish a lot, and though there’s sometimes a scattered quality to the script, a fierce, corruscating energy pushes it through.
Flame Broiled deals with incidents both cosmic and petty. At the beginning, a black woman approaches the counter of a Burger King and encounters stubborn and intractable hostility from the white woman serving her; eventually, both are raging. College students prepare for a party, and very soon afterward, the actors become jurors at a rape trial. There’s a game show that turns from frivolous to frightening as one of the losers receives her consolation prize: braving the raging seas as a refugee, enduring the miserable, hungry life of a refugee camp.
The several short, hallucinatory scenes touch on everything from roofies and date rape to game-show prizes, the difficulties faced by LGBTQ people, and white women’s fascination with black women’s hair: a white woman in a salon fantasizing about wearing braids like Bo Derek, a mocking black woman pointing out that her own varied and different styles are actually wigs. The statue of a Confederate soldier comes to life and tells his story; in counterpoint, a young black activist — also raised from the dead — tells his. There’s a profoundly sobering interlude during which we hear the names of black men and women murdered by police, including those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Atatiana Jefferson, shot in her home when a neighbor, worried because the doors were open, called the police. This is followed by a long, still moment in an otherwise frenetic evening as we take in a smiling photograph of the young Emmett Till, followed by the image of his mutilated face as he lies in his coffin after he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of fifteen.
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Hicks himself directs, and four actors play a number of roles. They’re all terrific. Emma Messenger and Ilasiea Gray are familiar to local audiences; the other two are Saxton Jay Walker, whose bio says he’s recently returned from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and Portland actor Gary Norman. (Last year, Norman starred in a production of The Madness of Lady Bright there, a tidbit I was delighted to find on Google. Lanford Wilson’s Lady Bright was one of the first plays to deal with gay themes, premiering at Caffe Cino in New York in 1964. I saw it there, and I knew Neil Flanagan, who won an Obie for his brilliant performance in the lead. Flanagan died of AIDS in 1986 — a time when the plague was decimating the theater world and being ignored by Ronald Reagan’s homophobic administration.)
No apparent structure or straight line links the vignettes, though some ideas and images recur. Beneath all the action, though, is the tension of discrimination and misunderstanding between black and white, gay and straight. Some scenes seem straight-out funny, then turn serious; some characters surprise you. There’s a lovely encounter between two little girls who can’t understand why they’re being forbidden to play with each other that manages to be sweet without being sentimental. The dialogue has the same innocence I once saw in a BBC video in which pairs of children of different races are asked what they think is different about each other. They all seem baffled by the question. After some thought, one little girl comes up with, “Lucy loves tomato sauce and I do like it but I don’t like it as much as Lucy.” And from a boy, “I have smaller toes than Artie.”
Flame Broiled isn’t narrow; the play doesn’t commit to or bog down in any one viewpoint. The white people can be obtuse; the black characters can be, too. And at all times, driving the action, is that fierce energy that needs to be experienced.