Curtain Calls

Plowshares stages world premiere that explores violence and other social ills

I felt bad last Friday evening for the cast of the Plowshares Theatre Company's production of "In Walks Mem'ry" at the Paul Robeson Theatre in northwest Detroit.
With more theater critics and their guests in the audience than paying customers, it must have been discouraging for the troupe of five actors to build and sustain the kind of energy that is needed to present such an emotion-laden script.
They persevered, of course – after all, they ARE professionals – and for that alone, they deserved the warm applause they received at the end of the show.
But I also felt bad for them because they appear to be valiantly struggling through a world premiere production that at times is quite engaging and thought-provoking, yet has two fairly serious flaws at its core: a script much in need of editing, and direction that occasionally does not serve the production well.
On the surface, playwright Eric C. Waldemar, Jr. chronicles the tragic tale of the Reed family of rural Maryland circa 1985. Zoey, a 31 year-old black woman, has just been released from prison after serving 15 years for the murder of her white boyfriend who wouldn't marry her when it was discovered she was pregnant. Her slightly older brother Jess brings her back to the old family home to live with him, but almost immediately, the happy family reunion turns sour.
There's an evil that permeates the house – Zoey constantly refers to it as the family curse – but only Jess can actually see it, or rather, him: their long-dead father Winston, whose powerful influence is still a major force in the lives of his descendants.
Waldemar's tale, then, can best be described as a "sins of the father" story: A terribly flawed family dynamic is passed along to yet another generation of Reeds with the same horrific results.
At a much deeper level, however, "In Walks Mem'ry" is Waldemar's attempt to address many – if not most – of the social problems that black families have faced over the past several decades.
And that's the script's primary flaw: Two-and-a-half hours is not enough time to present a thorough and insightful look at such serious social phenomena as teen pregnancy, incest, cohabitation without marriage, racism, poverty and domestic violence…especially when rolled into one highly emotional package. As such, Waldemar's script tries to achieve too much in too short a time, thereby short changing both the discussion and the audience alike.
Also problematic is Waldemar's dialogue: Some of it does not flow naturally off the tongue, and much of what's there needs to be judiciously trimmed.
Compounding the script problems are director Janet Cleveland's even-keeled pacing – everything seems to happen at the same rate of speed – and the staccato-like line delivery that oftentimes fails to sound like a real conversation is taking place. It can be, at times, very distracting.
But to her credit, Cleveland has assembled a talented cast of actors that tries its best to deliver a quality performance to those seated in the audience.
Most impressive is Augustus Williamson, who plays Winston as an imposing figure with a powerful presence who could easily intimidate his children without working up a sweat.
Cameron Knight – with a speaking voice I could listen to all evening – is equally adept in his role as Jess. His is a conflicted and tortured character, and he plays it with great conviction.
Also in the production are Iris Farrugia (Zoey), Telisha Sims (as Jess's common-law wife, Genevieve) and Lydia Willis (who plays Tyese, the daughter Jess and Genevieve are raising).
"In Walks Mem'ry" is also blessed with a fine technical staff that truly executed a first-rate design.
Christopher Carothers' multi-level set that allows the audience to see what's happening simultaneously in different parts of the Reed home is superb. Lights by Ron Burns and sound by Michael Duncan are also well done.
In Walks Mem'ry Staged Thursday through Sunday by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers Rd., Detroit, through April 13. Tickets: $10 – $25. (313) 872-0279.
Rating: Recommended for mature audiences.

Geoffrey Sherman to take reigns of Lansing's BoarsHead Theatre

After months of pouring through resumes and conducting interviews, the Board of Trustees of the BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing announced last week the hiring of a new artistic director effective this fall.
And the name is one that many Detroit-area theatergoers will immediately recognize.
Geoffrey Sherman – who reigned as artistic director of Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester Hills from 1996 to 1999 – will share the title of artistic director with BoarsHead co-founder John Peakes beginning in November. He'll assume full control of the company in January 2004 when Peakes and his wife, Managing Director Judith Peakes, retire and move to Philadelphia.
"I am delighted to be taking over such a gem as the BoarsHead Theatre," said Sherman. "While I was artistic director at the Meadow Brook Theatre, I looked west with envy at the forward-looking artistic policy that John Peakes was following."
During his tenure at Meadow Brook, Sherman offered theatergoers a more contemporary selection of shows than what they were usually accustomed to. Ticket sales dropped, and Sherman eventually left, but Meadow Brook's loss is the BoarsHead's gain: the BoarsHead's reputation for staging new and contemporary plays – and a smaller house – will be well-served by a leader with Sherman's vision.
In addition to his work at Meadow Brook, Sherman has previously worked at the BoarsHead where he staged the award-winning drama "The Old Settler," the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company and Plowshares Theatre Company. He has also served as guest director at more than 40 theaters, including England's Redgrave and Crucible Theatres, the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.


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