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Curtain Calls XTRA

By |2005-10-20T09:00:00-04:00October 20th, 2005|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

Review: ‘Harper’s Ferry/Mother Tongue’
Social reformers take center stage at Matrix Theatre

One night, two one-acts. Four actors, two per play. Two men on stage; one white, one black. Two women on stage; one black, one white.
If there is an agreeable symmetry to “Harper’s Ferry/Mother Tongue,” it doesn’t stop with what you see. Matrix Theatre Company has chosen to open its 15th season with “a contemporary look at four extraordinary catalysts for social change,” as noted on the program cover. This is an evening with forceful personalities from the formative years of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The symmetry extends to what you hear.
“Harper’s Ferry” concerns the meeting of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown just before the latter’s watershed raid on the Federal arsenal in that Virginia town. The meeting is actually historical, and the play is based on an account in the autobiography, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” The characters are arguably the greatest orator of the time, pitted against abolition’s bloodiest advocate. Brown wants Douglass to lead the uprising; in turn, Douglass tries to convince Brown that the rule of law is the surest path to freedom for all Americans. At contrast are the supremely rational former slave and the (possibly) insane fire-and-brimstone rebel.
Mark Trotter as Douglass and Bill Sinishco as Brown struggle to bring that contrast to the stage, but are hampered by the sheer volume of history pouring onto the audience – most of us hearing it for the first time. The lack of context leaves us puzzled in spots. The actors have chosen to answer questions at the intermission, but that leaves an impression of academic project rather than artistic endeavor. The bones are good; perhaps the production needs more flesh.
“Mother Tongue,” the second play of the night, has a different structure. Here two actresses are rehearsing monologues to portray pivotal characters in the civil rights movements. Isabella Baumfree, born a slave in New York State, took the name Sojourner Truth when she lectured on abolition and women’s suffrage. Mary Harris Jones, who lost her husband and four children to yellow fever, was in her late 50s when a growing interest in labor issues led her to social action as “Mother” Jones.
Considering the actresses are “channeling” their characters rather than playing the roles in a more traditional manner, the play works well as they flow in and out of the varying characters. We get the “back-story” of what motivated these women to take the roads less traveled. Sojourner Truth (Jocelyn Bellamy) and Mother Jones (Laura Berry) are memorable because they defied the roles assigned to women in their times. But in order to really understand what made these women tick, we need more definitive emotional context. Perhaps this play works better when the audience is more familiar with history, and can then focus its attention on the art.
“Harpers Ferry/Mother Tongue” Staged Thu.-Sun. at Matrix Theatre Company, 2370 Bagley, Detroit, through Nov. 20. Tickets: $15. 313-967-0999.
The Bottom Line: These one-acts provide an educational evening with great historical characters, but leave us wanting more insight, less facts.

TIDBITS: Theater News from Around Town
To review or not to review; Black Tie Awards at Detroit Rep

By Donald V. Calamia
ITEM: The theatrically astute amongst you – especially our readers in the greater Lansing area – might be wondering why there’s no review of the musical comedy thriller “No Way to Treat a Lady” in this week’s paper.
Honest: We didn’t forget about the show!
We’re just not reviewing it. At least not right now.
For the past few years, the BoarsHead Theatre has co-produced one show a season with Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company. The show would open in Lansing, and later, move to Detroit where it would conclude its run. And every year, Curtain Calls would review only the opening performance in Lansing; the Detroit run – with the exception of a listing in Theater Events – would be ignored.
We were never fully comfortable with this arrangement, but since we didn’t set the schedule for the shows, we simply reviewed whichever run came first.
But this season, the BoarsHead is co-producing not one, but two shows: One with Meadow Brook Theatre and the other with Performance Network Theatre. And – as usual – each show will hit the BoarsHead stage first. So the question we faced was this: Should we continue to review just the BoarsHead run? Or should we come up with a different arrangement this year?
After giving it much thought, we decided to split the reviews this year: One show will be reviewed at the BoarsHead and the other will wait until the second half of the run. And which was which was determined by a flip of a coin.
So “No Way to Treat A Lady” will be reviewed this January when it opens at Meadow Brook Theatre. And we’ll check out “Moonglow” this coming March in Lansing.

ITEM: The Detroit Repertory Theatre’s annual Black Tie Awards Benefit will take place Saturday, Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m. The evening’s Mistress of Ceremonies will be television news personality Amyre Makupson.
The annual event brings together longtime theater supporters and dignitaries who appreciate the theater’s artistic and civic commitment to Detroit and Michigan since 1957.
Honorary chairs are Debby and Dick Wade, president of Bank One’s Michigan Market. “Bank One has a long history of supporting access to Detroit’s art and cultural institutions, which makes this area an interesting and vibrant place to live,” the Wades said. “The Detroit Repertory Theatre enriches the life of the city and its citizens by bringing them closer to the arts. We want to see that tradition of community service flourish and grow.”
The benefit not only raises money for the award-winning Detroit institution, it also recognizes the work of local theater professionals as determined by the Rep’s subscribers. The evening begins with a champagne/appetizer reception, followed by presentations of honored dignitaries, the DRT Subscriber Awards and a performance of the Rep’s opening show of the 2005/06 season, “Heart Attack.” An afterglow will complete the evening.
Tickets to the event are $200. All proceeds will help fund the Rep’s Capacity Building Program.
For tickets or information, call 313-868-1347 or visit

About the Author:

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.