‘Tree of Fire’ only burns gently
By Armando Huipe
Tree of Fire is a gritty theater piece written and directed by Jesse Bliss (of The Roots and Wings Project) currently running at Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theater until March 31st, 2013.
At first glance, Inner-City Arts appears to be a fortress: it has thick high concrete walls and secured gates, much like the play’s prison setting. Such security is understandable for a youth arts center in the heart of the notoriously sketchy Skid Row District of Downtown Los Angeles. Inner-City Arts, however, is often referred to as an oasis nestled in this part of town. Within those walls is an arts center that serves as a bastion where youth can explore the arts through music, drama, and visual art programs.
Tree of Fire is the story of three women, Alma (Romi Dias), Josephine (Miriam F. Glover), and Maya (Julanne Chidi Hill), who recount their lives from inside of their prison cells through retrospective vignettes. They are accompanied by Ella (Lizzie Peet), a ghost who is trying to deliver a message to the outside world about the injustices surrounding women and prison. A magnolia tree catches fire in the prison, threatening the lives of the inmates and the book documenting Ella’s life that holds that message.
Dias, Glover, and Hill seize various opportunities to demonstrate their potency on stage through monologue and poetry. However, a tapering off in energy and momentum in the play’s lengthy second act somewhat diminishes the effectiveness of their performances.
There is only one man in the cast, Hansford Prince, who plays over five characters in two acts. Prince’s performance usually lands in the realm of caricature; his characters are never fully formed and tend to blend together.
Encumbered with statistics and martyrs that justify them, the show is more preoccupied with exposing the systematic injustices in our prisons than crafting a narrative based on realistic characters. The play presumably takes place in Los Angeles, though this is muddied by a lack of specificity. The beginning does refer to the LA Riots, but the rest of the piece lacks a consistently defined time and place.
Though the Rosenthal Theater is a wonderful space, it possesses a lot of empty space that worked against the production’s minimalist set design. Sitting in the second of five rows, the actors were extremely far away, which made it difficult to connect with them.
Margaret Prescod, host and producer of the KPFK radio show Sojourner Truth, introduced the show on opening night and set the stage for the daunting prison journey that lay ahead for the audience and actors. The play is a formidable endeavor itself, as its running time is upwards of 2 hours. Prescod started the evening by addressing the audience about the statistics surrounding incarcerated women. In the last couple of decades the number of women in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 200,000 women are behind bars with more than one million on probation or parole. Even more appalling is that 85-90% of these women have a history of domestic violence and sexual abuse. As we learn through the play’s plot, many of these women are incarcerated for crimes of poverty or crimes related with drugs.
Tree of Fire was developed through the writer/director’s own company The Roots and Wings Project. The injustices within the prison system are an important message to champion. In partnership with Inner-City Arts, The Roots and Wings Project uses the theater art form as a vehicle to affect social change. As theater, however, the production struggles to get beyond preaching and into storytelling.
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Tree of Fire
Written and Directed by Jesse Bliss
Performances March 8, 2013 – March 31, 2013
Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theater
720 Kohler St
Los Angeles, CA 90021
Tickets and additional information at