Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Shannon Dorsey and Nehassaiu deGannes
Photo by Teresa Castracane
Nehassaiu deGannes' dominating and multifaceted performance is the main reason to see Incendiary, receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington. Playwright Dave Harris uses a variety of theatrical effects–not to mention an effort to approximate video game action with live performers onstage–to share and sort out a story of motherhood in a perilous society.

More specifically, the program includes this notice: "This play contains discussions involving gun violence, solitary confinement, carceral violence, generational trauma, suicidal ideation, the death penalty, the legal system, domestic abuse, depression, fetish, arson, and violence against children/schools. This play contains depictions of gun violence and prison."

deGannes is Tanya, whose actions propel the 90-minute play. She is determined to rescue her son Eric (Terrance Fleming) from solitary confinement in prison before he is executed, and that means discovering, among other things, her innate talent with weapons, her seemingly endless endurance and stamina, her ability to deal with and conquer any obstacle she faces, as well as more mundane skills like creating the perfect strawberry shortcake. The most difficult challenge she faces, however, is maintaining a genuine emotional connection with Eric and his older sister Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey).

While Jasmine is (and must be) more subdued than Tanya, Dorsey has a way of revealing her frustration, disappointment, and heartache without overt emoting. Just the way she starts most sentences with "My psychiatrist says ..." is enough to show how she looks to others to give her the advice and validation she never got from her mother. Similarly, Fleming understands himself with more clarity than his mother ever could.

Director Monty Cole keeps everything spinning in the air, playing up the absurdity of the supporting characters in Tanya's orbit. Brandon J. Pierce plays Tanya's brother (and weapons supplier) and, with Breon Arzell, her matched pair of lawyers; Arzell also embodies both a macho personal trainer and a flashy hairdresser, with amusing character-defining costumes designed by Samantha Jones.

The problem is the relentlessness of Harris' concept. With a protagonist who mows down obstacles without catching her breath, the audience is left trying to keep up and deal with the overload of stimuli. Andrew Boyce's scenic design seems straightforward but keeps providing surprises; Mextly Couzin's lighting design often verges into vivid oranges and reds (part of Harris' ongoing fire motif); and four musicians add continuous unsettling underscoring composed by Navi.

Incendiary runs through June 25, 2023, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call (02-393-3939 or visit

By Dave Harris
Directed by Monty Cole

Tanya: Nehassaiu deGannes
Markus/Gerard/Joshua: Breon Arzell
Manny/Marcus: Brandon J. Pierce
Jasmine: Shannon Dorsey
Eric: Terrance Fleming