As Utah playwright Jenifer Nii’s first play returns, a look back at her body of work

The playwright’s first play, “Fire!,” is seeing a revival, opening Thursday, from Plan-B Theatre.

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre) | Playwright Jenifer Nii, second from left, with actors 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."

“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.

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.

“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.

Here is a look back at her productions in Utah. There’s also a full story on Nii, “FIRE!” and her legacy in the local theater community.

“The Scarlet Letter” (2012) • Former Tribune reporter Ben Fulton called Nii’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “vivid.” He wrote of Nii and Plan-B Theatre, “The political furor over women’s contraception reminds us that men in power still feel compelled to speak about issues of women’s choices regarding health.” At the time, Nii said, “I read the book once just to get familiar with it. Then it sank in really deep. The more I read the book and pondered on it, the more I saw The Scarlet Letter in the world.”

(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.

“Suffrage” (2013) • In this play, Nii shares the story of two quarreling sister wives in the same polygamous family. Nii takes Utah history to the stage — connecting suffrage and marriage. Fulton wrote of “Suffrage”: “There are plays that set out to educate, inform or even infuriate us, as if the playwright sat down to write dialogue between characters that leaves us arguing with ourselves after the curtain is drawn.”

(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.

“Ruff!” (2015) • Nii was inspired by her day job as a dog trainer to tell this story of two shelter dogs. Shelter life, she told The Tribune, is like a secondary trauma, where “every noise seems amplified, the food is strange, and you have bunkmates you don’t choose.”

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

“Kingdom of Heaven” (2016) • A story about a Mormon housewife who begins questioning their gender identity, which the late Tribune theater critic Barbara M. Bannon called a “work in progress.” Still, Bannon said the musical, which Nii wrote with composer David Evanoff, “captures the conflict and confusion of confronting difficult and unpopular truths about our lives.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jeanette Puhich, left, and David Hanson perform in Plan-B's first original musical, "Kingdom of Heaven." Wednesday, March 23, 2016.

“The Weird Play” (2018) • Former Tribune theater critic Ellen Fagg Weist chronicled Nii winning a national award for this production. At the time, Nii said, “Theater has, in so many ways, saved my life. Therefore, Plan-B has saved my life. They have given me opportunities I didn’t deserve.”

(Rick Pollock | Plan-B Theatre Company) | Actors April Fossen, Susanna Florence, and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, from left, in playwright Jenifer Nii's 2018 play, "The Weird Play."

“The Audacity” (2020) • A production about three Utah pioneer women went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. It transformed from one character to a six-character show (all performed by April Fossen), as Tribune critic Scott D. Pierce wrote. “I wouldn’t say ambitious,” Nii said, “but I will say that it was terrifying. There was so much material and lives so fully lived, that I didn’t know how to do these characters justice. It was very, very daunting.”

(Plan-B Theatre) April Fossen played six different roles in Jenifer Nii's 2020 play "The Audacity."