I’m not the critic who was supposed to review “Palmer Park” at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre – and to be honest, that was by design. I grew up only a few miles west of that North Detroit neighborhood, and the period playwright Joanna McClelland Glass writes about in her semi-autobiographical play roughly coincides with much of my teenage years. I had friends who lived in Palmer Park, and I visited the area on many occasions. (I had a drivers license and a car before most of my high school friends did.) As such, I remember those days quite well – although not all of the specific incidents that occur in the play. It’s a period of Detroit’s history that fascinates me, and I’ve had dozens (if not hundreds) of related discussions in the intervening years with Detroiters of every stripe: former and current, black and white, young and old. Plus, I’ve read many books, research papers and news reports that examine and analyze the political and social ramifications of the 1967 riot and the mass exodus from the city that followed. So I wasn’t sure if I could be impartial to Glass’ play – especially after hearing strong, conflicting criticism of the work from numerous Detroiters following its world premiere in 2008 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
But car problems altered my carefully laid plans, and on what was supposed to be a quiet Saturday night I found myself at the United States professional premiere of “Palmer Park.” Two-and-a-half hours later, my initial reaction to the production was simply WOW!
And now I highly recommend it – in part because of the well-executed performances and cool music that plays throughout the show, but also because of the much-needed conversation the play might generate. Because, as Glass inferred while addressing the audience after the opening night performance, after 40 years, what’s changed?
“Palmer Park” opens in 1968 as two couples move into an exclusive, upper-middle-class Detroit neighborhood. Both are highly educated, earn above-average incomes, own a dog and have a young daughter who will attend the nearby public elementary school. They arrive two months apart – and a year after a five-day riot devastated sections of the city. The next-door neighbors are similar in almost every way except one – and that singular difference is what drives the still-timely plot to its inevitable conclusion.
What separates the Hazeltons from the Townsends is race: Fletch and Linda Hazelton (Jason Echols and Casaundra Freeman) are black, while Martin and Kate Townsend (Patrick Moltane and Inga R. Wilson) are white. Fletch is a pediatrician, and Martin is an Iowa-born professor who is about to start a new job at Wayne State University; their wives are stay-at-home moms.
The couples become active in the community by helping raise money for their kids’ school, Hampton Elementary. And after learning that their friendly, well-kept neighborhood is one of the few in the city that is successfully integrated – that is, it borders on what social scientists believe is the ideal mix for racial integration: 65-percent white and 35-percent black – they work to ensure that the ratio is maintained.
But a plan by the Detroit Board of Education to bus 130 lower-income black children to their exceptional neighborhood school threatens their peace and harmony. And how the couples and their friends respond to the plan is at the heart of this revealing – and in many ways, sad – drama.
Discussions regarding race relations are always fraught with danger, especially in Metro Detroit where race-baiting is a finely-tuned art form. One side or the other always gets offended, and shouting almost always replaces a rational discourse. Glass doesn’t tippy-toe into the danger zone, however; instead, she addresses the issues of race and class head on by crafting a story about the search for the American Dream by whites and blacks who are on different levels of the socio-economic ladder. As such, there are no villains in the story (except, maybe, for the school board); rather, she populates it with recognizable people who simply want the same thing for their families – a nice place to live and a good education for their kids. But not everyone agrees on how (and where) that should be attained. (Who takes what position – and why – may surprise you, which is the basis for some of the criticism leveled against the work. My own experiences and research, though, found similar people sharing many of the same views as espoused by her characters.)
Glass’ characters cover a wide spectrum of personalities and backgrounds, and she blesses them with sparkling, natural-sounding dialogue that is vividly brought to life by director Yolanda Fleischer, who expertly guides one of JET’s largest casts in recent memory. Ten actors play 18 characters, and all are well-executed.
That’s especially true of the four leads. They’re a well-oiled team, and they’re fully believable as spouses and close friends.
Of the supporting actors, Cornell Brown Jr. is particularly impressive as well-to-do attorney Ron Marshall, and later, as Bagley School representative Alvin Wilkinson. (His vocal and physical changes are superb.)
“Palmer Park” is a co-production with Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre, which assumed responsibility for much of the show’s technical work. Patrick Field’s sound design will thrill fans of music from the ’60s and ’70s, while Christopher Otwell’s Spartan set fits the needs of The JET’s stage. The Hazelton’s furniture, though, didn’t quite match the economic level one would expect of a successful doctor.
After leaving the performance on opening night, a hopeful sign was observed all around me: People were walking to their cars and talking – not only about the play, but also the delicate subject matter it so succinctly laid before us. Let’s hope the conversation continues.
Performed first at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, located in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through May 9. $32-$41. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
Then at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. May 21-23 & 27-29. $25-$30. 313-577-2972. http://www.wsushows.com