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Dark ceremonies in family and in irony

By |2018-01-16T10:26:43-05:00January 24th, 2007|Entertainment|

By Robert W. Bethune

The moment you see Harry Wetzel’s set for Lonnie Elder’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” now at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, you know things bode ill. Every little detail says seedy, down-at-heels, least-likely-to-succeed – from the worn-out radio to the rickety chairs to the beat-up red step-stool that folds into a seat. (We actually had one of those in my house when I was little!) And the bare, ugly, gritty back room just goes to complete the picture.
Adele Parker has been supporting her father Russell and her two brothers Theo and Bobby since the death of her mother. She’s sick of it. Her ultimatum: Start making some money or move out. Be careful what you wish for, Adele; you might get it. And in this case she does.
Theo and Bobby are already small-time criminals. Led on by Theo, Russell is drawn into Theo’s great scheme – to supply Theo’s especially good corn whiskey to all the after-hours joints in Harlem, with the vaguely sinister assistance of a man named Blue Haven, who speaks for a shadowy group called the Decolonization Association – something which may or may not exist. Meanwhile, Bobby will help reclaim Harlem from The Man by lending his skills in theft to raiding parties that will clean out white-owned stores at night until they are forced to close. On the surface, it works, but the sudden influx of money turns the family’s values upside-down and inside-out, leading to a pathetic and tragic conclusion.
The play is a classic of American black playwriting. It is easy to see how it opened the door to later playwrights who worked this vein of family drama, such as Charles Gordone and August Wilson. The story is tight, the characters are rounded – and the ideas, which are never merely told, but always shown in action, are still highly pointed today.
It’s an excellent example of ensemble theater. Under Tim Rhoze’s direction, there is a constant flow of feeling and relationship between all members of the excellent cast. He brings out the comedy in the piece; there are many moments that are really too sad to do anything but laugh. He pulls no punches; there is never any doubt about the inexorable destruction of this family.
I’m reluctant to single out any one member of this truly ensemble cast, but for skillful handling of the long and difficult scene in the second act where Russell literally falls apart in front of our eyes, I must congratulate James Bowen. I’ve never heard sadder laughter from an audience as he pulled off the most delicate balance of drunken silliness combined with moral degeneration right in front of us.
The saddest thing about this story is how this family tears itself down to nothing precisely in the effort to build themselves up. They are, quite literally, pursuing the American Dream of a better life, and every move they make pulls them down, not up. The power of that understated irony is the force that drives the play.

‘Ceremonies in Dark Old Men’
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thu.-Sun., through March 16. Tickets: $17-$20. For information: 313-868-1347 or

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.