A Utah playwright, silenced by illness, gets a revival of her first play

Jenifer Nii’s 2010 play “Fire!”, about forgotten Utah writer Wallace Thurman, gets a revival.

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre Company) Playwright Jenifer Nii, in 2018 on the set of Plan-B Theatre's production of her work "The Weird Play." Plan-B is reviving Nii's first play, "Fire!," for a run April 13-23, 2023, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

“It’s true, you know, what happens when death approaches,” a character says in Utah playwright Jenifer Nii’s play “Fire!”

“Suddenly there is no and too much time, and there’s little for the brain to do but wonder about any number of impossibilities: what would have been different had I done that thing or another, at that time or another? If I’d made more of an effort, could I have become more than the sum of my failings?”

The play launched Nii’s career as a playwright when Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre premiered it in 2010. Plan-B is reviving the play for a run, starting Thursday and running through April 23 — at a time when the play’s resonance and Nii’s legacy are at turning points.

“Fire!” tells the story of Wallace Thurman, a queer Black man who lived in Salt Lake City, attended West High School and the University of Utah, and was a member of Calvary Baptist Church. He also was a novelist and screenwriter at the heart of The Harlem Renaissance — the Black cultural movement in New York City during the 1920s — and has largely been erased from Utah’s history.

The 2010 production made Nii, then a reporter for the Deseret News, the first Asian playwright to stage a world premiere of one of her plays in Utah. Since then, she has become the most produced Utah playwright of color, and has earned accolades for her work — which includes an adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” in 2012, “Suffrage” in 2013, “Ruff!” in 2015, “Kingdom of Heaven” in 2016, “The Weird Play” in 2018 and “The Audacity” in 2020.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Puhich sings in Plan-B Theatre's 2016 musical, "Kingdom of Heaven," written by Jenifer Nii and David Evanoff.

“Some of the best, most intriguing, whimsical designs in our history have been Jenifer’s plays,” said Jerry Rapier, artistic director at Plan-B. “Every playwright speaks through their plays.”

She isn’t writing any new plays, though. In 2021, Nii was diagnosed with hippocampal atrophy, a condition associated with cognitive decline. The hippocampus is responsible for emotional and behavioral regulation in humans, as well as learning and memory functions.

Portions of Nii’s brain are calcifying, meaning she is losing her ability to write plays, remember the ones she has written and communicate at all.

“There’s some of her plays that she doesn’t remember at all, which is a very difficult place to be for a writer,” Rapier said.

Nii has sold her home, bought an RV and is exploring the western and Midwestern United States with her dogs, to experience nature she never had interest in before, Rapier said.

Because of her diagnosis, The Salt Lake Tribune was unable to interview Nii. Instead, Rapier shared quotes from Nii, collected from email exchanges throughout 2022.

“Because it affects my memory, this experience is teaching me to try not to get too attached to things,” Nii told Rapier. “I don’t know which memories I’ll be allowed to keep, and what I’ll have to let go of. I just have to try to pay attention to the moments as they happen, and to try to be as involved as I can be in creating positive, meaningful moments.”

Nii said that she wants to see “as much as I can of what is beautiful in the world while I still can. Not so I’ll have something to remember, but to have as many beautiful ‘now’s’ as I can.”

As the original team from “Fire!” returns to pay homage to Nii, a trailblazer in Utah’s theater community, they are finding some uncanny connections between play’s subject and the playwright.

One theme that permeates the play, Rapier said, is the idea of “hoping for legacy while combating erasure simultaneously.”

Rapier said, “the broader story is that [they are] two writers of color separated by a century — both of whom called Salt Lake City home, had their writing careers cut tragically short by an illness, and run the risk of not ever holding their rightful place in the history of our state.”

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) Carleton Bluford playing Wallace Thurman in the 2010 production of Jenifer Nii's play "Fire!" for Plan-B Theatre. Bluford is reprising the role in a new production of the play, running April 13-23, 2023, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.

Discovery and connection

In 2010, Carleton Bluford hadn’t yet graduated from college, but he too would start his dramatic career — first as actor, and later as playwright — with Plan-B, Wallace and Nii.

Bluford said he considers himself and Thurman kindred spirits.

“To have an African American as the main character in a show is actually really rare,” Bluford said. “Some of the things that [Thurman] described, the way he felt in Utah, coming back to Utah and people in Utah: I very much felt the same way.”

Bluford said playing Thurman allowed him to explore and process his experience of being Black in the Beehive State.

When people want to talk about his experience in Utah, he said, they’ll say something along the lines of, “‘Oh man, that must’ve been hard.’ … It was actually hard, but not in the way that people think of.”

At times, Bluford said, it felt like a different kind of othering — not necessarily racism, but being treated preciously. For example, elementary school teachers would ask him if it was OK if they taught about civil rights.

When he first read “Fire!,” though, Bluford said his immediate reaction was to wonder why he hadn’t heard of the man before — in school or even from his family, who championed African American artists.

“To be confronted with an African American man from Utah, who’s also a writer and who also felt some of the passion and frustrations that I feel with my own writing, is very important,” Bluford said. “As an African American, I would write things I always felt like the world or people were expecting me to write on my experience.”

At the time, when he first read Nii’s play, Bluford said so many things written about Black people were about slavery, or living in bad neighborhoods, or other experiences that became part of the Black narrative.

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) Actor David Fetzer in the 2012 production of Jenifer Nii's adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" for Plan-B Theatre.

“I really wanted to start to write about regular experiences that Black people have and not join the canon,” Bluford said. “It’s funny because Wallace talks about that, how other people would be like, ‘No, don’t do this and write about this,’ [or] ‘Share with us your art, but make it this way so that it helps advance the race.’”

In many ways, Bluford said, Thurman became something of a mentor to him as a young artist.

“Growing up in Utah makes me inherently different,” Bluford said. “But the cool thing about Wallace is that he grew up in Utah, too, and he actually is inherently different.”

Bluford said he has lived a couple of different lives since first playing Thurman in 2010, coming back to the production feels like coming home — and that he feels more free as he takes on the role again.

“Going into it this time, I feel none of the pressure to be anything except for who I am,” Bluford said, “because that’s exactly what Wallace would’ve wanted and that’s exactly who Wallace was.”

The play remains relevant, Bluford said, because a lot of people still don’t know who Thurman is.

Doug Misner, library and collections coordinator at the Utah Division of State History, confirmed that there’s not much about Thurman in state records. Misner found one listing in the division’s library catalog, a mention in a book, a mention in their artifact database and an appearance in a spring 1971 Issue of Western American Literature. (The Tribune ran an article about his passing in 1934, at age 32.)

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) Actors in the 2015 production of Jenifer Nii's play "Ruff!" for Plan-B Theatre.

Bluford said Nii is his favorite playwright, and he recalled that he was shocked to learn that “Fire!” was her first play.

“From the moment I read the play, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a world renowned experienced playwright.”

Nii, he said, is brilliant.

“Knowing that she’s gonna be there and this may be the last thing she kind of sees and understands is really hard,” he said. “The show revolves around this life-death cycle, and it’s kismet how it’s mirroring everything in life as we’re doing it now.”

Bluford said he is excited to take this ride with Rapier and Nii one last time, with the hope that it gives Nii some happiness, peace and solace — like a final love letter for her.

Rapier agrees. “In some ways, it feels more precious now than it did in 2010,” he said.

(Photo courtesy of Plan B Theatre) April Fossen played six different roles in Jenifer Nii's 2020 play "The Audacity," produced by Plan-B Theatre.

A wordsmith, through and through

April Fossen, who has acted in many of Nii’s productions (including “Suffrage” and “The Audacity”), said that from the moment she first read a scene from one of Nii’s scripts, she felt she had found a writer’s soul to match her actor’s soul.

Fossen, writing in an email, said Nii’s ability to write approachable language will stick with her.

“She is a wordsmith,” Fossen wrote. “She came out the gate early in her move from journalism to playwriting with these texts that were full of rich, juicy language.”

Fossen said Nii’s words “felt like a challenge only Shakespeare had provided for me … She can craft a sentence or a monologue (or a whole play) that is both intimate and global, but phrased in a way that is singular to that character in that play. No two characters speak alike or think alike.”

Nii’s “deeply engaged brand of storytelling,” Fossen said, is a gift to both her and the Utah theater community at large.

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) April Fossen, left, and Sarah Young in the 2013 production of Jenifer Nii's play "Suffrage" for Plan-B Theatre.

Nii, in her own words

In her emails with Rapier, Nii commended Thurman for his devotion to “fomenting change and growth,” adding that “he was willing to ask questions of and even criticize his own community, his friends, himself. That takes work and courage.”

Nii continued, “Thurman was part of a movement wherein people of color were (re)claiming their voices as artists. … In our fight against these oppressions and injustices, we ought not forget what we are fighting for and who we are fighting with, so that we end up elevating the whole.”

Talking about this revisit of her first production, Nii expressed feelings of gratitude.

“I don’t know of another playwright who has been given a start, and a finish. An introduction, and a loving goodbye,” Nii told Rapier. “I am blessed.”

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) Playwright Jenifer Nii, second from left, with actors, from left, Susanna Florence, April Fossen and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin on the set of Plan-B Theatre's 2018 production of Nii's "The Weird Play."

Paying tribute to Jenifer Nii

A revival of ‘Fire!,’ playwright Jenifer Nii’s first play, presented by Plan-B Theatre. Carleton Bluford will star in the one-man play, reprising the role he originated in 2010 of Utah writer and Harlem Renaissance figure Wallace Thurman.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

When • April 13-23.

Tickets • ArtTix.org.

For information • planbtheatre.org.