Rodney Hicks has a well-rounded theater resume. The actor's been seasoned by stints in New York City on Broadway and Off-Broadway alike, as well as at regional theaters across the nation. Television? Been there, done that. And now, his ongoing side interest in playwriting is about to go big, when Boulder’s Local Theater Company hosts the world premiere of Hicks's play Flame Broiled. or the ugly play, a fast-moving, racially sensitive play with a satirical edge, on October 24 at the Dairy Arts Center.
A milestone in Hicks’s morphing career, Flame Broiled is his first fully staged work as a playwright and director, and it’s already creating a buzz.
The conception of Flame Broiled dates back to Hicks’s recent struggle with spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder caused by muscle spasms that kept him off the stage, followed by his father’s death from cancer. The day his father passed, Hicks recalls, he got his voice back — a signal, perhaps, to get serious about other avenues of self-expression.
“My journey with dysphonia didn't lead me into writing,” Hicks notes. “In addition to being an actor, vocalist and teacher as well, I have always been writing. My father and uncle were both writers, and I wrote, too. But in my head, I thought I’d be going through the rest of my life doing something else, never thinking I would have an opportunity as a writer to move past a reading — or just friends in the living room. I always thought of it simply as exercise for my brain.”
But after his father passed away last year, Hicks was motivated to take his writing more seriously, and began taking formal writing courses to refine his skills. Eventually, he felt compelled to write a play about racial issues.
“I kind of laughed at myself,” he says, explaining that as a mixed-race kid, he’d grown up with both black and white sensibilities. “I grew up with friends of all races. But because of the beauty of how I was raised, I never saw the other side of things.
“It wasn't until after Dad died that I began to think about race — he had always been about race, while I was caught up in musical-theater land,” Hicks continues. “I was not woke — I didn't know! — until the world began expressing itself out loud. I made a decision. I told myself, ‘You have to be who you want to be in this world, now that Dad’s no longer here.’”
Hicks began musing over an everyday sight he witnessed while driving one day. “There was a white woman and a black man walking across the street, and the woman clutched her purse closer as he passed by in broad daylight. He was wearing an Armani suit!" he recalls.
“She was an accidental racist,” Hicks explains. “He personally ignored it, she let go of her hand after he passed, and I thought, ‘Now, that’s a play.’ I believe in the divine energy of the universe. Things happen for a reason.”
The incident brought back many things he'd experienced in a more lucid way. “It’s laughable — until it’s not,” Hicks notes. “I used to walk across to the other side of street, thinking, ‘Oh, God, here we go again.’ It hurts the soul. What happened to me all the time used to be easy to deal with. Now I just grieve. I no longer want to be a character in your melodrama.”
A free master class with playwright Paula Vogel that he was lucky enough to attend at a Dramatist’s Guild conference in New York City gave him a push on the playwriting path. Though he went into it feeling out of his league, Vogel welcomed Hicks warmly. “Five minutes into it, I knew I was meant to be there. It was like I was at the edge of my seat for twenty hours without even going to bathroom," he remembers.
“At end of the class, she said, ‘Now we’re going to do a bake-off. I’ll give you a prompt, and you’ll get a half-hour to write a three-or-four-minute play,’” Hicks continues. He received a prompt involving two characters: “a female person-of-color woman explaining to an out-of-touch white man why it is important to vote.”
Unsure of what the response would be from his classmates, Hicks was appeased when “the whole room began laughing and applauding it at the end,” he says. But the best validation came from Vogel herself: “She said me, ‘I hope you feel that you have to finish this play.’ She's been a vocal supporter and mentor of mine on the project. It’s been the most fascinating thing.”
And a play was born.
Hicks had landed in Colorado because he's married to Denver Center for the Performing Arts artistic director Chris Coleman. But it was his friendship with Local Theater artistic director Pesha Rudnick that was instrumental in getting Flame Broiled off the ground and onto the stage. “We had many mutual friends in common, so one day we took a long hike together," Hicks recalls. "We just started as a personal connection.” They became the tightest of buddies (Hicks now calls Rudnick his “sister-friend”), and Hicks shared some work with Rudnick that impressed her enough to consider his play for a full production staged by Local Theater Company.
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As its title suggests, Flame Broiled. or the ugly play is split between flame-broiling and ugliness in terms of subject matter. Consisting of a series of vignettes about race relations, the play will make audiences “laugh or feel uncomfortable,” Hicks says, leading to that “Oh, I need to know more about that” feeling that can result in an open discussion of issues.
For that reason, Hicks is confident that people will want to see the play more than once. “You won't get all of it the first time," he says. "That’s my design. I take you to the streets of America, from the highest of highs to the extreme lowest of lows. It’s a play that went from initially being a satire to being something else you can’t categorize — a New American Play.”
Having a flashy set design and an expert cast of two black and two white actors playing 34 characters adds to the impact and wham-bam pace of the play. “But this is not an issue play," Hicks explains. "These are snapshots of life, covering everything from race to rape culture using characters of all ages. That’s the flame-broiled part. The ugly play starts when we drop into what’s happening today — the reality. That’s when we start to crack the hearts open.”
Flame Broiled. or the ugly play opens for three nights of previews on Thursday, October 24, with performances continuing Wednesdays through Sundays through November 17 at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder. Find information and tickets, $20 to $40 (two-for-one on Wednesdays), at Local Theater’s website.