Fire Shut Up in My Bones
An opera in three acts, sung in English
Music by Terence Blanchard
Based on the Book by Charles M. Blow
Libretto by Kasi Lemmons
Charles Blow, age 20, drives down a Louisiana road. He is alone, but there is a gun in the seat beside him. Destiny urges him on, inviting him to take revenge for a crime committed many years ago. When he arrives at his childhood home, Charles sees his mother. He calls to her, but she exists in a different time, when Charles was seven …
Gibsland, a tiny town in Louisiana. In front of the family’s house, we see Charles, age seven and affectionately called Char’es-Baby by those around him. Char’es-Baby is lonely and looks forward to starting school, but his mother, Billie, tells him he must wait a little while longer. Billie values education, which she views as the best way for her children (and herself) to get ahead in life, but Char’es-Baby is small for his age, and Billie worries that he will be bullied.
Billie adores her son, but she is often too frazzled to give him the affection he craves: The family is poor, Billie works in a factory processing chickens, and the money she does earn slips through the fingers of her womanizing husband, Spinner. The household drama comes to a head when Billie, humiliated and frustrated by Spinner’s constant womanizing, follows him to a local bar where his band is playing, sees him with another woman, and draws a gun on them. She doesn’t shoot, but she does decide to leave him.
Billie and her five sons move in with Uncle Paul. Char’es-Baby dreams of a different life as he collects “treasure” from the local junkyard. Somewhere, he thinks, there must be a place where he will feel like he belongs, but for now, Loneliness is his only friend. Even a visit from Spinner at Thanksgiving can’t soothe Charles’s overwhelming feeling of loneliness—especially when the visit ends with Billie once again drawing a gun on her errant husband.
One day, Char’es-Baby’s cousin Chester comes to visit. At first, Chester seems like he might be the friend Char’es-Baby has been waiting for, but it soon becomes clear that Chester is not all he seems to be. He steals candy from a local shop and then teases Char’es-Baby for being upset about it. One night, Chester sexually abuses Char’es-Baby. Char’es-Baby is too horrified and ashamed to say anything, and his brothers’ taunts in the following days leave him feeling more and more alone.
Recalling these memories, adult Charles begins to weep. Destiny sings to him, urging him to take revenge on Chester.
Charles is now a teenager, but memories of his past—Chester’s abuse, his mother’s exhaustion—haunt his dreams at night. One day, he and Billie attend a church service in which the pastor promises that God can wipe away all sins. Desperate to be freed from his memories, Charles decides to get baptized. To his disappointment, however, his trauma remains.
Compounding Charles’s sense of loneliness and despair is the fact that he has no one to talk to. He is grappling with feelings he doesn’t understand, but when he tries to open up to his brothers, they laugh at him and tell him that “real men” don’t talk about their emotions.
Convinced that he doesn’t belong anywhere, Charles starts visiting the abandoned house of a family whose children drowned. Billie is confused by why he would want to spend time in such a dismal place, but Charles replies that it gives him space to think. Loneliness reappears, promising to be his lifelong companion.
Charles’s fortunes seem to be changing when he meets Evelyn, a beautiful young woman to whom Charles feels an instant connection. His relationship with Evelyn also gives him a chance to prove his heterosexuality to his brothers and neighbors, who have long wondered whether or not Charles might be gay.
Enjoying a new sense of confidence, Charles feels like he is finally ready to strike out on his own. He hopes to head north for college, but when Grambling State University, close to Gibsland, offers him a full scholarship, he accepts.
As Charles prepares to leave, Billie asks him to stay safe. She hands him the gun she once used to threaten Spinner. After Charles departs, Billie reflects on all that she has sacrificed for her family. Alone in her house, she wonders what might lie ahead.
Charles has joined Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and he is being subjected to the frat’s brutal hazing rituals, which include both physical beatings and verbal abuse. Charles accepts the abuse stoically, but he is amazed by how cruelly humans can treat one another.
One night, while partying at a local nightclub with his fraternity brothers, Charles meets a young woman named Greta. They begin a passionate love affair. Feeling incredibly close to Greta, Charles eventually shares with her the painful secret of his sexual abuse. He is heartbroken when he learns that she is still seeing someone else. Alone and lonely once again, Charles calls home, desperate to hear his mother’s voice. To his shock, Billie passes the phone to Chester, who is paying her a visit.
The sound of his cousin’s voice instantly triggers Charles’s old hurt and fury. Blind with rage, Charles decides to confront Chester. He rushes out to his car, gun in hand.
In his car on the dark road, Charles contemplates the choice he is facing. Destiny sings to him again, promising to stand by him as he wreaks bloody revenge. But when Charles reaches his childhood home, Char’es-Baby appears and urges him to leave his bitterness behind. Charles embraces Billie, and he finally feels peace.
The memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
Charles Blow never set out to write a memoir. Instead, he set out to kill time: “I was commuting from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., every morning, and back home every night,” he recalled in a recent interview with the Met. “And I thought: I have so many stories that I could tell about my life. I hate wasting time, so I started writing little short stories and vignettes from my life.” As these stories began to accumulate, Blow realized that his collection of memories was much more than simply the sum of its parts, and Fire Shut Up in My Bones was born. The result is a memoir that weaves unforgettable anecdotes into a searing narrative arc, illustrating both the destructive power of abuse and the redemptive possibilities of community and forgiveness.
Discussions of Fire tend to focus on the more difficult aspects of Blow’s story, and teachers and students embarking on a study of either the book or the opera should speak openly about this content before they begin. Young Charles faces bullying and verbal abuse, sexual assault by a fellow minor, and brutal hazing in his first year at college. Any of these topics might be triggering for readers, and teachers should be sure to create a safe space for questions and discussion. Yet it would be a mistake to think of this memoir as exclusively a story about struggle and trauma. Blow’s childhood, as described in Fire, was also filled with happiness, opportunity, and love. Stories such as treasure-hunting in the town dump, eating a particular strain of dirt found near Gibsland, and the sheer audacity that helped him land an internship at The New York Times reveal a young man of incredible energy, creativity, and insight. The result is a narrative that is complex, challenging, and uplifting all at once.
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Charles Blow has referenced the quotation (often attributed to Maya Angelou but originally published by Joan Welsh Anglund) to explain why he wrote a memoir. How might this idea reflect the process of writing? What does this quotation mean to you?