With ‘The Fires,’ Raja Feather Kelly can’t help but break the mold

*Featured image: L-R: Phillip James Brannon, Ronald Peet, Beau Badu, Sheldon Best, and Janelle McDermoth in ‘The Fires.’ Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Raja Feather Kelly wanted The Fires to be a normal play. He quickly discovered that normal — if there is such a thing — isn’t part of his vocabulary.

“There was a day in rehearsal where I was like, ‘I’m so annoyed with myself.’ Like, this is my attempt to make something as normal as possible,” writer-director Kelly tells INTO. “And this is so not normal!”

But The Fires, a new off-Broadway play at Soho Rep both written and directed by Kelly, is all the better for its abnormality, defying expectations of space and time in the most literal sense.

Though The Fires marks Kelly’s debut as a playwright, it’s far from his first foray into theater. Kelly is one of New York City’s premier choreographers, having choreographed the Broadway musicals Lempicka and A Strange Loop, as well as the current off-Broadway hit Teeth. He’s also artistic director of the feath3r theory, a dance-theater company where Kelly has produced 18 premieres. Still, The Fires is a new frontier for Kelly, one that sprung from a curiosity about love in all its forms.

L-R: Phillip James Brannon, Ronald Peet, Sheldon Best, and Beau Badu in ‘The Fires.’ Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Kelly describes The Fires as “Giovanni’s Room meets The Hours,” an apt descriptor for a time-bending play about queer love and loss. Though The Fires takes place in a single Brooklyn apartment, it’s set in three time periods simultaneously: 1974, 1998, and 2021. In each era, the apartment’s residents (and the people that shape their lives) grapple with questions of love, legacy, and life.

In ‘74, lovers Jay (Phillip James Brannon) and George (Ronald Peet) struggle to balance passion, stability, and societal expectations as they teeter on the edge of self-destruction. In ‘98, grieving son Sam (Sheldon Best) wrestles with his father’s recent suicide and the cryptic journals he left behind. In ‘21, playboy Eli (Beau Badu) weighs the comfortable rut of hookup culture with the hope — and abject terror — of pursuing what could be true love. 

Genre-wise, Kelly struggles to categorize it: “It’s a surrealist melodrama tragicomedy — or comitragedy,” he decides. “It should end in tragedy.”

L-R: Sheldon Best, Beau Badu, and Phillip James Brannon in ‘The Fires.’ Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

When Kelly began working on The Fires, he was knee-deep in literature. “I was reading works by James Baldwin, I was reading Anne Sexton, I was reading [Ta-Nehisi] Coates,” he recalls. “There were so many things I was reading that were from different decades that I was like, ‘I have to try to pull this all together.’”

Thus, the play’s multigenerational structure: “I think it was just naturally thinking about the lineage of queerness and the lineage of being a Black person, the lineage of love,” Kelly continues. “Where do we learn to love? Where do we learn to relate? Where do we learn to commune? And that has to sort of go back — at least, that’s what I believe.”

Though The Fires’ characters can’t see or interact with one another beyond their own eras, their stories are always in conversation: sometimes literally, sometimes thematically, and always with profound commentary on the chronology of Blackness, queerness, and love itself.

“In some ways, all of the characters are the same person. And in some ways, they’re all different people,” Kelly says. The similarities are clear: each era’s protagonists are Black queer men and writers, and each is at a crossroads in their life. Though Jay, George, and Sam’s stories are locked in the past with endings set in stone, Eli lives in the quasi-present of 2021, where, armed with the knowledge of the previous characters’ stories, he can choose to follow in their footsteps or forge his own path.

“It makes me think of the trope or the therapeutic saying, like, ‘The cycle ends with me.’ So there’s this sense of like, you have a choice here. You are the person who has an opportunity to consider something different, even if it’s just for the moment,” Kelly says. “In many ways, I think I pose that to Eli.”

L-R: Phillip James Brannon, Janelle McDermoth, and Sheldon Best in ‘The Fires.’ Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

It’s safe to say that The Fires won’t be the end of Kelly’s playwriting career. In fact, he’s already started on his next play. He’s tight-lipped on the details: “I’ll just say there’s a weather girl, there’s a lot of pink, and there’s some death,” he hints.

Sounds like a recipe for success. For now, Kelly is more than satisfied to have put The Fires into the world and let it speak to an audience close to his heart.

“As the narratives of Blackness and queerness exist in the world, I just want to have another version out there,” Kelly says. “I think sometimes I don’t feel that the things I’m thinking about — I don’t see what I feel.”

“You have to be the art you want to see in the world,” Kelly continues. “There’s something for me that is very nuanced, and very poetic, and very lyrical about this exploration of love that I cannot say that I have seen in this way. And so, I wanted to offer that. I wanted to put that out into the world in hopes that if someone were looking for this kind of poetry or experience, they might enjoy it. They might find themselves in it. And they might be at the position that Eli is in, where they can choose to live.” ♦

The Fires runs through June 30 at Soho Rep.

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