It all started when JonaNoelle and Flora Lark Baily began reciting poetry on-stage at Rapunzel’s Coffee and Books in Lovingston in 2008.
A few years later, after majoring in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Virginia, the Afton natives became involved in the Occupy Charlottesville movement. As the twins worked together to address social problems, they realized that the activists in the movement — themselves included — had their own problems to solve.
Enter The Fire Tigers, a poetry duo the sisters created to perform personal works of poetry about their own healing. Creating a safe space for conversation about personal trauma, they believe, is its own form of activism.
If this sounds depressing, it’s not. At a recent performance in Charlottesville, The Fire Tigers skillfully interwove visual images of interconnectedness with poems about rape, anti-gay violence and self-love. Interlaced with the tough issues was an unmistakable warmth that filled the room.
The twins’ interaction on stage embodies a magical spontaneity and playfulness possible only between people who have spent much of their lives in the same room; at the same time it is imbued with a deep respect for boundaries and the individual differences between them.
“Their poetry is incredibly candid,” said Meghan Borishansky, a Charlottesville resident who attended a July performance. “Not only did their work resonate with me because of my own life experiences; it was moving because it came straight from their hearts without pretense or any effort to dramatize. I wasn’t sure whether to shout, cry or laugh — I had so many emotions running through me during that performance. There are no walls between the Tigers and their audience.”
Several poems speak to the challenge of loving oneself after experiencing trauma.
One of the most startling moments in the performance is when Flora performs her poem “That’s So Gay,” about prejudice and LGBT stereotypes. While not overly explicit, the poems dig deep, leaving the audience reflective.
“Poverty is traumatic, divorce is traumatic,” Flora said during a recent interview. “We’ve all had our hearts broken,” adding, “It is only through connection that we can heal.”
The sisters themselves are an example of this, having written the majority of the material in the show when they were apart during a 5-year “break” from each other. Now, finding catharsis in sharing their stories together, they hope that others will hear themselves in the poems and be inspired to find healing in their own ways.
Through their art, they have stayed close to their Nelson County roots. The title of their performance, “Hearts, Hands and Hugs,” is a reflection of their upbringing in Nelson County. “So much of what you see on stage is the childhood our mother gave us,” Flora said.
Since 2014, The Fire Tigers have given 14 performances and have taken the stage at multiple open mic nights. Perhaps the mission of the Fire Tigers is best summed up in the following words from “I love you, JonaNoelle,” a poem written and performed by JonaNoelle:
“If love is kindness and compassion/in the face of an unfeeling world/and the willingness to remain open/when others have closed their doors/then I will take each painful lesson/as an opportunity for growth/and work to mend broken hearts/in the best way I know. “
Hughey-Commers grew up in Nelson County and as an adult has worked on several projects documenting the county’s history. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.