By D. A. Blackburn, guest critic
Adapting historical events to the stage can be a risky business. Works taking too much artistic license are sure to suffer a slow death at the hands of critics and audiences alike. Conversely, works that cling too tightly to the details can get bogged down, becoming a text book come to life.
It is in this respect that Arthur J. Beer’s “Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials” succeeds most admirably. The University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company production, which opened last Friday, masterfully balances historical context and a dramatic, moving story.
The history behind the play marks both a dark chapter in Detroit’s past and a monumental shift towards racial equality. Dr. Ossian Sweet had built a successful career in Detroit in the 1920s, and decided to move his family into a new home on the city’s east side, at Charlevoix Street and Garland Ave. This might have been an uneventful occurrence, were the Sweets not an African-American family moving to a predominantly white neighborhood. When news of the Sweet’s move became public, neighbors organized to run the family off. A mob gathered outside the home on two successive nights, throwing rocks and growing hostile. On the second night, shots were fired from inside the home, members of the mob were killed, and the Sweets, along with a handful of friends and business associates, were arrested.
“Malice Aforethought” opens to find the Sweets being interrogated by police. The subsequent trial serves the audience with the facts of the case, along with the attitudes of the police, neighbors and the greater society. It ends in a hung jury. The Sweets are acquitted in a second trial, which historically, set precedents declaring that all men had the right to defend their family and property, regardless of race.
Compiling the history for this work must have seemed nearly insurmountable when Beer took it on in the late 1980s (UDM premiered the work in 1987). In researching the events surrounding the trials, he discovered that public records had been lost or destroyed. Beer was forced to use newspaper accounts to piece his account together. Nonetheless, he has managed to create an accurate and insightful work, condensing some 80 witnesses into eight.
Much credit for the production’s impact must be given to its casting. There are 25 unique roles, and each is brought to life with conviction and a deep understanding of character. Beer, himself, plays defense attorney Clarence Darrow to great effect. Other particularly noteworthy performances include those of James Bowen as Dr. Ossian Sweet, Toni Walker as his wife Gladys, Dax Anderson as prosecutor Robert Toms, and David Bokas as Inspector Norton Schuckenect – whose nervous, twitchy demeanor hits a perfect mark. David L. Regal directs his cast with precision, and a tremendous attention to detail.
The production is not, however, without flaw. Matthew Klug’s sound design is solid, though the company executes it quite poorly, producing a tinny, unbelievable backdrop to the action on stage. The properties department also misses the mark occasionally, particularly with the handguns entered into evidence. Mark Choinski’s lighting is simple and effective, but his sets seem a bit sub-par for a production of this quality. That said, none of this really detracts from the excellent acting, which consistently draws the audience deeper into the story.
‘Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials’
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Thu.-Sun., through Feb. 18. Tickets: $20. For information: 313-993-3270 or http://sweettrials.udmercy.edu