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Even for a writer as accomplished as Dave Harris, the prospect of premiering a new play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is something to get excited about. “Woolly has been on my list of dream theaters for a long time,” he gushes. “So many writers I have been obsessed with have been on that stage.” After being waylaid by pandemic cancellations, Harris gets his chance to join them this May with the world premiere of Incendiary, the story about a Black mother looking to bust her son out of death row.
If it sounds like the pitch for an action movie, you’re not far off. “This is a mother who, in the very first scene, buys a flamethrower and all these guns,” Harris notes with a laugh. But while it pulls on techniques from comic books and video games, the core of the story is much closer to home. Harris and his sister were raised in West Philadelphia by a single mother, with whom they have a complicated relationship.
“I come from a pretty secretive family,” Harris says, “a family where patterns repeated over and over again, but people didn’t have the language to explain what was happening or why.” The secrets ran deep, to the point that Harris only recently discovered he had more siblings than he realized. Despite the shock, the revelation quickly became an opportunity to talk through some difficult topics. “Family secrets are painful and tough; speaking to it, finding language to talk about it, you always come out better on the other side.”
Harris has long used language to work through the tough stuff. After graduating from high school, he became the first person in his family to go for a full, four-year college experience—at Yale, no less. The initial plan was to find a steady career in the sciences, but a transformational encounter with playwright and teacher Deb Margolin changed his course. “She slapped me upside the head in my sophomore year and said, ‘You want to write, but you’re afraid,’” Harris recalls. “‘The people in your life did not work so hard for you to go off and do something you don’t love.’”
Since then, Harris has used writing to find agency over the things that terrify him. It’s a drive that fuels his poetry and performance and has taken him all over the country, including to new play havens like the dearly departed Humana New Play Festival at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and Playwrights Horizons in New York. The latter co-produced his Tambo and Bones, a hip-hop comedy about two Black men who find themselves trapped in a minstrel show. The premise allowed Harris to confront his own views on race and imbue that exploratory process with incisive commentary and his signature sense of humor.
For all their social relevance, Harris’ plays are more than provocative. One of the key aspects of Incendiary is the opportunity to explore members of a Black family wrestling with power on their own terms. “This is a kind of power that I don’t see in Black characters,” he says of the play’s heroine. “They’re often working in resistance, and this is about having the power to work through what they want and respond to that.”
That’s partly why Woolly Mammoth is such an ideal proving ground. To Harris, Woolly is the rare company that lives its values and acts on its commitments to equity, meaning there’s less pressure to justify one’s inclusion and more time to focus on the work. “In some theaters, you can find incredible people, but you can also know that your show is just a pocket for them,” he says of many predominately White institutions. “Whereas at Woolly, I actually think we just get to work and be this play.”
Dave Harris’ Incendiary, directed by Monty Cole, opens at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on May 29 and runs through June 25. woollymammoth.net. $30–$67.