Xavier Mital, Takayla Williams Jackson, Troy T. Bell, & Jan Louden in Look What the Fire Did. Photo: T.A. Yero.
Look What The Fire Did
By Lewis J.Morrow
Directed by Sydney Edwards
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
A young Black man is shot and killed by a police officer. As one of the characters in this play exclaims, “It’s a damn broken record!” We know the stages of this narrative all too well. The “Breaking News” reports, the grief-stricken family speaking to the press, the citizen protests in the street, the verdict on the officer – typically an acquittal – and the helplessness expressed by community leaders.
But playwright Lewis J. Morrow focuses on the very private moments in such a tragedy, not the public face but the things one might say only among family and behind closed doors. In doing so he pushes a deconstruction of Black family dynamics built of such force and complexity as to nearly overwhelm the 75-minute run time of this tightly written one act.
It opens with a rich, warm social interaction among a family: son David (Xavier Mikal), daughter Vita (Takayla Williams), mother Tay (Jan Louden), and paterfamilias Vaughn (Troy T. Bell) are joined by Vaughn’s old friend John (Sadik Ibn-Mohammad). It’s practically a Tyler Perry movie, vivid and funny, a setup that could go anywhere until David receives a phone call about John’s son, Jamar (Khristian I. Davis).
Morrow’s sharp and pointed dialogue leads us through a dizzying array of emotional reactions, some of which are surprising and nuanced. Shock and grief, of course, but Williams has a powerful scene detailing Vita’s conflict about the oft-spoken roster of dead Black men and how much less attention is paid to Black women killed by police. The play was written before 2020 and the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville so the point may seem a little blunted now for audiences here, but as Vita explains, she will mourn publicly as is expected of her, but only here, with her family, can she reveal her innermost anger.
And that is the key to understanding the importance of Morrow’s play. As a white audience member, it felt a strange privilege to witness the intensely private conflicts on display, and I would imagine that Black audience members might profoundly identify with them. Although Look What The Fire Did often brushes up against didacticism, it mines the multiple perspectives of father and son, husband and wife, brother and sister through a narrative that never turns the way you would anticipate. In a post-show talkback, these clashes were fertile ground for audience reflection and the shifting moral relativism of being attacked and persecuted for your racial identity.
Morrow also uses memory and grief to bring Jamar to life, and that presence gives all of the heated arguments a valuable underpinning and provides some of the most difficult and impactful moments in the play. Moments better experienced for yourself.
Morgan Younge outfits the characters with an eye to detail but also the changing emotional temper of the piece, and the sets and lighting, by Gerald Kean and Lindsay Krupski, are also finely tuned.
Director Sydney Edwards seems to know what to do with a strong cast who takes a ferocious attack on the material. The action is lean but passionate and a temptation to overplay, but they each remained anchored in truth all the way through. The emotions run high yet Morrow keeps the language clear and intentional, serving as a roadmap for the visceral work of the actors. As the climactic scenes played out, I could sense that much of the audience was holding their breath, they were so deeply engaged.
That’s what theatre should be. Returning to that post-show discussion, there was expressed a consistent opinion about the necessity of this play to reach a wider audience, a serendipitous confluence of a play we need to see executed by a cast that leaves nothing on the stage. I know it’s only April, but this production of Look at What the Fire Did right now must be counted as one of the most important plays of 2022.
Featuring Troy T. Bell, Khristian I. Davis, Sadik Ibn-Mohammad, Takayla Williams Jackson, Janeane Louden, & Xavier Mikal
Look What The Fire Did
April 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, & 22 @ 7:30 pm
April 10 & 24 @ 2:00 pm
No show April 17th for Easter or April 23rd for Thunder over Louisville
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.