My friend Jen loves dogs. And dogs love her.
Over the years in which I’ve been lucky to know Jen and call her a friend, she has fostered many, many dogs—lovingly called her pack. One day I ran into her on the street near Liberty Park while she was in the midst of walking five or six. The way she spoke to them, and the way they clearly adored her, was a moment that has stayed with me.
“I don’t feel like I have much of a relationship with humanity,” she told me recently. “But I feel like I’ve been able to be of service to dogs. I could put my heart in it, and they would accept it.”
I’m here to tell you, friends, that Jen has been of service to me. You see, Jen is a playwright, and a very good one. Several times over I have sat in Rose Wagner’s Studio Theatre, immersed in the story and characters of a Jenifer Nii play. By the end of Suffrage, a taut exploration of Utah polygamy, I thought — Damn, I wish I had written that.
Jen is one of the humblest people I know. “I didn’t really aspire,” she says, “I tried to catch up and felt lucky.” She turns away from attention, instead focusing on her work: writing stories that need to be written, and in a style that is both poetic and approachable. Her observations of humanity — of us — are clear, concise and compassionate. Her plays ask thoughtful questions about what it means to be human.
FIRE!, soon to be revived at Plan-B Theatre, exemplifies this idea. It’s the story of Wallace Thurman, a man who has been forgotten by Utah history. A novelist and playwright, Thurman was a queer Black man who grew up in Salt Lake City but whose literary work took him to California and New York.
Jen sees Thurman as someone who asked questions — and kept asking because he couldn’t find the answers. “His fiction was not of the quality he wanted,” she explains. “I wonder if he had felt safer in his skin, in his sexuality, in his relationships … Maybe that would have freed up space for him to be creative.”
Thurman was surrounded by vibrant and wildly artistic people, many of whom were much more lauded than he was. Jen perceives that he had to have been both inspired and frustrated by his friends’ successes. “He was not seen in the same way. There’s a certain pain there.” Reflecting on her own short-lived career as a competitive pianist, “I got my butt kicked over and over again. You can’t survive that without fraying.”
The first production of FIRE! in 2010 sparked Jen’s prolific residency at Plan-B, a place where Jen has felt that safety she wishes for Thurman. “With each project, I was asked to open my heart to different points of view. It’s one of the greatest blessings artists have — to open your heart and look at all of these perspectives and see that it’s messy.”
The messiness of life — “mistakes and miscommunication and expressions of love.” That’s what you will find contained within the deliberate structure of a Jenifer Nii play, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Fire!, Plan-B Theatre, Salt Lake Lake City, Apr. 13 – 23
Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson recently premiered her play Mestiza, or Mixed at Plan-B Theatre. Her adaptation of Pride & Prejudice plays Texas Shakespeare Festival this summer.