If something about Kitchen Dog Theater’s production of The Firestorm sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not mistaken. Much like David Mamet’s Race, which KDT mounted in 2013, this play has Cameron Cobb playing a privileged white man whose powerful lifestyle is threatened when he’s accused of mistreating a black person.
Unlike that blunt staging, though, this insightful and thought-provoking debut of Meridith Friedman’s new play is rendered in more than just black and white.
Friedman has written a shrewd exploration of politics, privacy, relationships and truth. If that all sounds a bit heavy handed, don’t worry. Her intelligent dialogue and Tina Parker’s focused direction help turn these folks into conflicted human beings rather than archetypes.
The talented cast also helps. As mentioned before, Cameron Cobb is Patrick, a man who travels in high circles; in this case, he’s hoping to become the next governor of Ohio. He’s assisted by Janielle Kastner as Leslie, a bright young thing who always has his coffee and reports at the ready.
Leslie is razor-sharp, if a bit grating (think Anne Hathaway-inspired annoyance), but Kastner finds the ambitious aide’s likability in moments of relatable awkwardness.
One of those moments comes early on, when Leslie meets with Patrick’s wife, Gaby, to advise her on her public persona. Having been tasked with studying Michelle Obama, Gaby can’t help but notice how all the first lady’s academic and professional accomplishments were dumbed down in order to make her seem more approachable and “family focused.”
Gaby, however, has no intention of burying her successes or glossing over the fact that she doesn’t like kids or believe in religion. Kenneisha Thompson stunningly makes Gaby both icy and aloof, warm and funny, a lawyer who values her professionalism yet wants to support her husband.
Gaby and Leslie’s happy hour exchange is a clever volley demonstrating how easily remarks can be taken out of context. It’s political spin, but in a refreshing arena.
Once accusations of a racist prank Patrick took part in during college surface, against a fellow Vanderbilt student (Jamal Gibran Sterling), it becomes clear that Gaby has things far more important to worry about than belts and colorful scarves.
Friedman doesn’t shy away from the obvious questions: What’s it like for Patrick to be running for office in the Midwest when he’s part of a biracial couple? How do Patrick and Gaby truly view each other? (Hint: It’s not always pretty.) What does race mean nowadays, and how do we approach it?
Lines like “You’d be surprised at how many white chicks care about my hair” and “I have a black wife. That’s the equivalent of 10 black friends. That practically makes me black by association” are woven in so subtly that they never feel like cheap punchlines.
For its last show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (the art gallery is moving to a new spot in the Cedars neighborhood, and the current building will be “repurposed,” so KDT will perform next season in its interim space, the Green Zone), Parker pointed out that it only felt right to close with a new work. Luckily it’s a one-two punch for the Kitchen Dog, because this new work is certainly worthy of a historical place in the company’s timeline.
The Firestorm runs through June 27 at the MAC.