In Wayne L. Firestone’s new play, Higher, presented by plays2gather, a hot air balloon floats over the intersection of the Mason-Dixon Line that demarcated North from South, and the Eastern Continental Divide, which the British Empire considered the westernmost border between their colonies and lands reserved for native peoples. The balloon’s passengers are Kat (Kyle Kankonde), a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Rutgers, and her yuppie entrepreneur boyfriend, Marco (Colum Goebelbecker). Kat has been depressed from the COVID lockdowns’s extended isolation and Marco hopes a balloon trip will cure what ails her. The pilot, Billy (played by director Connor Lugo-Harris, who stepped into the role last minute due to COVID), is an introverted guide for the terrain below. He carries the Bible his mother gave him.
Billy is an immigrant from Liberia. Marco, with his slick buttoned-down wardrobe and swagger, is so accustomed to having people bend the rules whenever he flashes his cash that he alienates Billy, who takes the safety of his passengers very seriously. And as a rich White guy who thinks he’s the life of the party, his microaggressions lead Kat, who is Black, to wonder how she’s maintained a relationship with him since their years in undergrad.
At times the scenes flash back to Liberia where Billy’s late mother, Bliss (Sarah Amoyaw), who died during an ebola outbreak, and father, Gus (Brock Brown), worry that their son’s activities at the university will get him in trouble with the government—though it’s left unclear exactly what Billy does to arouse concern. Is he a political activist? Gay? Asexual? All are suggested but none are confirmed.
Higher features a play within-the-play, telling a story of Anansi, the spider and trickster hero of West African Akan folklore that Gus told Billy as a child.
Firestone’s script is ambitious in its melding of history, geography, and myth, but there is a lack of clarity in the narrative transitions. It’s hard to tell when and where certain scenes take place or whether a scene should be read as realist or magical-realist. We are told of a growing connection between Kat and Billy, but it’s strictly off-stage, and most of the actors seem uncertain if they have a character arc to follow. (Ironically, it’s the vapid Marco who seems to have the most coherent story.) Perhaps scenes were cut in order to fit into the short runtime that Capital Fringe demands, but 70 minutes seems insufficient to tell Firestone’s story.
Still, there is too much to admire in Firestone’s ambition not to hope for a new draft that will resolve these problems. And—as much as any fan of make-believe can admire the audacity of simply pretending cardboard boxes are the basket of a hot-air balloon—one can’t help but wonder if a larger design budget with projections, lighting effects, or props could smooth the transitions. Fringe is a venue to try out something new, and despite its incompleteness there is something intriguing about Higher. Hopefully, Firestone and his collaborators will have a chance to get a more complete version off the ground.
Higher, by Wayne L. Firestone and directed by Connor Lugo-Harris plays as part of Capital Fringe Festival through July 24 at W. Washington (Formerly Forever 21), 3222 M St. NW. capitalfringe.org. $15.