Distant Fires | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Distant Fires


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Company Players

at the Rally Theatre

The most difficult lesson for a writer to learn can be summed up by the acronym KISS--keep it simple, stupid. Neophytes tend to embellish their writing, hoping that a flashy style will create the illusion of content. But the best writers remain firmly focused on what they're trying to say, and search for the most concise, effective way to say it.

Distant Fires is a good example of this kind of writing. Less than 90 minutes long, it's utterly simple and plain. Six construction workers--three white and three black--spend a hot summer day in 1971 pouring concrete on the tenth floor of a skyscraper under construction in Ocean City, Maryland. Down below is the beach that's transforming Ocean City into a popular resort. And in the distance, the workers can see the smoke rising from Cambridge--a black neighborhood that, the night before, erupted in violence.

Not much happens during this single workday. A hardworking black man named Thomas (Darryl Alan Reed) is competing with a white guy named Beauty (Bruce Manion) for a well-paid job as a bricklayer. Foos (Charles Glenn), a sullen young black man from Cambridge, is angry because he was roughed up by the police as the riot was developing. Angel (Peter Goldfinger), a naive Catholic college boy whose father helped him get this lucrative summer job, gets into a fight with Beauty. And through it all, Raymond (Tony Smith), an easygoing black man, keeps up a comical banter that dissipates tension and adds some fun to the arduous work. Raymond even keeps his cool when the white foreman, General (Richard Komenich), makes one of his sudden appearances, causing the men to scramble for their hard hats and look busy.

Distant Fires seems an unassuming snapshot of life among a half-dozen blue-collar workers, but this simplicity is deceiving. With a few deftly sketched scenes, playwright Kevin Heelan evokes the racial tensions simmering just beneath the surface of the seemingly amiable relations among these men. Thomas, for example, who is striving so hard to earn a place for himself in the middle class, believes that the civil rights movement, coupled with his own hard work, will bring him success. His black friends, however, consider him a lackey, far too submissive to white people. When Thomas is made boss for the day, even Raymond can't resist hassling his friend by asking for an extra hour off for lunch. Thomas must refuse the request, of course, and Raymond is just joking, but the exchange draws attention to Thomas's new identity as the "boss man."

Foos is the opposite of Thomas. Instead of striving for success and acceptance, he remains defiant and uncooperative. He shows up late--if he shows up at all--and tries to do as little work as possible. But then he expects the other men to cover up for him so he won't get into trouble. If they refuse, Foos feels persecuted, and complains about how "they" are out to get him again. "What's with this 'they, they, they'?" Beauty wants to know. In his book, nobody is entitled to special treatment--and "special treatment" is the whole premise of the civil rights movement.

The riot in the Cambridge section of the city has exacerbated the conflicts between Thomas and Foos. An act of defiance sparked by the abusive behavior of some police officers, it has also inflamed white prejudices, and made life more difficult for those blacks who believe integration is possible. "Some nigger in Cambridge throws a rock, and it hits some nigger in Texas right in the face," Raymond grumbles.

Without resorting to homilies or strident debates, Heelan reveals the thoughts and emotions that underlie racial prejudice. His simple, well-crafted script is highly effective, and the Company Players play it for all it's worth.

Director Mercedes Rudkin doesn't clutter the play with a lot of extraneous stage business--although the cast members do lay two slabs of concrete during each performance. Instead she relies on the actors to make Heelan's dialogue interesting. And they do. Smith is particularly effective as Raymond. His sonorous delivery makes the black dialect almost musical, and creates a sharp contrast with Thomas's speech, which actually sounds "white" by comparison. As Thomas, Reed radiates the ambition and anxiety of a black man who is battling racial prejudice optimistically. Glenn smolders with bitterness as Foos, while Manion is all bravado and bluster as Beauty. Goldfinger captures the wide-eyed innocence of Angel, who desperately wants to be accepted by the others. And Komenich's ponderous belly, which hangs over his tightly cinched belt, suggests the arrogance of a bully gone to seed.

Distant Fires doesn't pretend to be definitive on racial prejudice, and the events it chronicles certainly aren't momentous. But Heelan's simple, straightforward script, staged so effectively by the Company Players, makes the play an intelligent comment on a very complex topic.

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