Rebecca Naomi Jones and Playwright Rinne Groff Wade Into the Murky Waters of Fire in Dreamland

Jones stars in the New York premiere of Groff’s play at the Public Theater.

Rebecca Naomi Jones stars in playwright Rinne Groff's Fire in Dreamland, currently running at the Public Theater.
Rebecca Naomi Jones stars in playwright Rinne Groff's Fire in Dreamland, currently running at the Public Theater.
(© David Gordon)

A black lion named Black Prince bursts forth from a burning tent, mane aflame, and ascends a towering roller coaster to escape from the fiery wreckage of Dreamland, the amusement park that once occupied Coney Island. It's a powerful image that's significant in the show, and when playwright Rinne Groff stumbled across it in a book, an idea sparked for what would eventually become the play Fire in Dreamland, opening tomorrow, July 16, at the Public Theater.

The resulting play is set shortly after Hurricane Sandy devastated Coney Island in 2012. Thirtysomething Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) lives in the neighborhood and spends her days working to develop public–private partnerships to bolster redevelopment. On a particularly challenging day — the anniversary of her father's death — she bursts into tears on the boardwalk and is approached by a charming Dutch filmmaker named Jaap (pronounced Yaap). The attraction is immediate, and Jaap woos Kate with impassioned descriptions of the film he's attempting to make: a historical drama about the 1911 fire at Dreamland.

Groff's play mines the situation for all the humor it can find, and Groff and Jones are excited by the tightrope walk of navigating that dynamic. "In those first 10 minutes, the audience is really laughing," Groff remarks. "It's just like we're riding the laughs and figuring out how to not step on them."

Jones, nodding intently and smiling, adds, "What I think is so great about the play is that the audience thinks it's a comedy, and it is, but then I think they just get to a point where they realize, ‘Oh, this is about other things, too,' and that's really fun."

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Enver Gjokaj stars as Jaap opposite Rebecca Naomi Jones as Kate in Fire in Dreamland.
Enver Gjokaj stars as Jaap opposite Rebecca Naomi Jones as Kate in Fire in Dreamland.
(© Joan Marcus)

Rinne, what inspired the play?
Rinne Groff: I read about it in a book called Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas. There's a chapter on Coney Island, and in it included this fire in 1911. In that small section, there's a reference to this lion with its mane on fire, and that image really captivated me. Fire in Dreamland, it's so perfect. If you want to talk about hopes and dreams and what can happen, the metaphors are all built into the equation.

At a certain point, the idea of this Dutch filmmaker came along. A Dutch filmmaker actually came and stayed at my apartment once. The way he talked about what he was doing…I was just a loser East Village theater chick at the time, and even I had the sense of, "Is this really going to happen? Are you really going to make this movie that you're talking about?"

Rebecca, what about this play drew you to it? What made you want to sign on?
Rebecca Naomi Jones: I lost my father 10 years ago. The play opening with Kate at the boardwalk on Coney Island crying eight years after the passing of her father spoke to me immediately. It speaks to being okay in a way, but to still harboring such grief. You know a couple of times a year, it just sucks you back in. And I have those feelings come back up for me when I'm either around water, or in water, or washing dishes, or something that has to do with water.

What is it about Jaap that draws Kate in so strongly?
Rinne: I feel like Jaap is a mistake that we all have made. It's a wonderful mistake to make because there are so many pleasures in it. Part of that mistake is the feeling that someone is going to rescue you from your life. You're unhappy with your life and this thing comes along and you think, "Oh, that's going to take me out of my life to another place, and then I don't have to deal with my life anymore." And that's always false. You cannot be rescued out of your life. You are in your life.

Rebecca: I agree. I think that I always feel there's something about him showing up in this moment of crisis and devastation. She's in this stuck place and there's that feeling that I have felt before of, "This is it. This is the turning point." I think he unlocks something in her that she's really locked down and closed off. Just the idea of being able to open oneself up again a little bit is so exciting, and that's why he sweeps her off her feet.

Rinne: The thing that intrigues me about the Kate-Jaap dynamic…the line that's most significant is, "A dream exists. As long as I keep moving toward it, it exists." There's a person who, in process towards something, can feel utterly fulfilled, and there's another person that says, "No, until you've done something, there's nothing." The truth is, I don't know which is right, exactly. I'm intrigued by both sides of that.

I think if we find Jaap at 60, he'll still be living the same life. He can go and do and make and meet and have all those things happen. So in a way, maybe he is the purest kind of artist, because he doesn't need anything other than that making. I would say, as the footnote to that, he doesn't acknowledge what he's taking in order for that life to happen.

Do you have any fond amusement park memories?
Rinne: I was in the ninth grade. It was a first date. We went to the county fair and we went on a roller coaster together. I threw up all over myself and my date. And then he became my boyfriend. He was an awesome boyfriend, and there's the proof of that right there. On the very first thing we did together, where all the kids are being so cool, I threw up all over us and he still liked me. That's a keeper.

Rebecca: You know what my favorite thing as a kid was? The water parks. I think that while I love the water and I love the beach, I am somewhat intimidated by the ocean — the massiveness of that, how powerful it is. Bodies of water intimidate me, so there's something about being in a controlled version of water.

Rinne: That is the mantra of Coney Island. Those early parks had horse rides and boat rides, but it was all completely fabricated. So you didn't ride a horse; you rode this thing. And you didn't go in a real lake; it was a man-made lagoon. As Americans, you could say we like reconstructing it and doing it better than just doing it. That's what Coney Island is: completely man-made on this natural beach.