Review: INCENDIARY at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

It's called "Incendiary," but it left me cold.

By: Jun. 06, 2023
Review: INCENDIARY at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Let me tell you a bit about myself. Even before the death of George Floyd and the political earthquake that followed, I have long been of the opinion that drastic and systemic changes are needed in the American judicial system. When I covered Gaithersburg city government for the Montgomery Sentinel, I took a knee during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the city council meetings. I do the same when the "Star Spangled Banner" plays at Washington Nationals games. On the wall above my desk where I'm writing this, I have tacked up the front page of the Washington Post from April 21, 2021, announcing Derek Chauvin's conviction for murder the previous day. I oppose the death penalty. I admire works that effectively explore generational trauma and make use of innovative storytelling techniques, including blending genres. For all these reasons, when I read the description of Incendiary, written by Dave Harris and directed by Monty Cole, which recently opened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, I expected to like it. I didn't.

The play's protagonist is Tanya (Nehassaiu deGannes), a 53-year-old  Black woman whom we first meet buying a cornucopia of firearms from her brother, Manny (Brandon J. Pierce). Pierce and  Breon Arzell play a variety of different characters, including a pair of attorneys-Marcus and Markus-to whom Tanya dictates her will.

We learn that Tanya's second-born child Eric has been in solitary confinement on death row for ten years and is soon to be executed on his birthday and that she means to free him. This establishes a premise rich in dramatic potential which, unfortunately, is not realized.

By far the most interesting and compelling sequences in Incendiary are the conversations between Tanya and her eldest child Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey.) As they pick fresh strawberries in Tanya's garden and bake them into a shortcake, they discuss the feelings of jealousy Jasmine and Eric's father had towards them for taking Tanya's affection. They movingly relate how this led to a pattern of physical and emotional abuse which still impacts Shannon's outlook on the world and romantic relationships, and steered Eric wrong. deGannes and Dorsey have wonderful chemistry in these scenes, which blend humor with a serious examination of trauma, and they are genuinely moving.

In the last 30 of Incendiary's 90 minutes, the play goes completely off the rails. Tanya visits the prison where Eric is being held with a strawberry shortcake she means to give him. When told by an unseen warden that she may not see him, she launches into a rampage. As techno music, alarms, and gunfire sound effects blare over the sound system, Tanya pantomimes killing the entire prison staff with pistols, a machine gun, and a flamethrower as she storms her way to her son's cell. When we meet Eric (Terrance Fleming) he seems remarkably stable and lucid for someone who has spent a decade in solitary. He chides his mother for her actions and refuses to flee with her. What's more, we learn that he is in fact guilty of the crime for which he is condemned: burning down an occupied elementary school! Sadly, it gets even more ludicrous from there.

At this point, I didn't know what to make of what I was seeing. Was this a dream sequence? An understandable if misguided revenge fantasy? Were we actually being asked to believe that a lone woman assaulting a maximum security facility could survive for more than thirty seconds?

As I said before, I enjoy and admire works that blend genres effectively, and satire can be a great means for exploring controversial-incendiary-topics, but the play's tonal shifts are so jarring as to obscure what, if any meaning it has.  The production notes state that Harris "harnesses the storytelling techniques of comic books and video games." Andrew Boyce's set includes lighted windows in the shape of Tetris blocks and Tanya, during the absurd massacre, does very much resemble a video game or comic book heroine, but again, it's difficult to ascertain what these touches add to the story.

I must state that I was clearly in the minority. The audience-comprised of a wide variety of ages and races laughed and applauded throughout. As I made my way to the lobby after the curtain call, I heard someone say to her companion, "That was unlike anything I'd ever seen." What you've just read is my reaction. Feel free to go see it and decide for yourself.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Incendiary runs through June 25th, 2023 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company which is located at 641 D St. NW Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: L-R Shannon Dorsey and Nehassaiu deGannes  in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's World Premiere production of Incendiary. Photo by Teresa Castracane.


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From This Author - Peter Rouleau

Peter Rouleau is an indie author, college professor, and theater artist who lives in Montgomery County Maryland. His favorite theatrical memories include getting to recite "To Be or Not to Be&quo... (read more about this author)


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