Planet Ant director Darren Shelton didn’t plan to produce a new play this year. Still resetting after Covid shut down the theater and arts center for an extended period and with many behind-the-scenes projects recently launched, including the reopening of the space’s Black Box Theater, it felt prudent to shift into a lower gear for a bit.
But, in the words of poet Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In Shelton’s case, the plan went awry when playwright and poet Will Street appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with his script for “‘round midnight//i got it bad (and that ain’t good),” a play Shelton knew he couldn’t risk losing out on directing.
“I was telling myself, ‘Don’t do a new creative project on top of everything you have to do right now,’ but Will sent me this script…,” Shelton says, pausing to find the right words. “And well, it’s weirdly heartbreaking and optimistic at the same time. I think the message, at its core, is that this is a play about self-love. The trials and errors and mistakes and betrayals that really lead this character, Elijah, to the conclusion that self-love is the only real way forward with how he wants to live his life. That just resonates a lot with me.”
It was more than just the elements of the story, though, Shelton says, that drew him to the material. “Will is a poet. He has this cadence and this way of writing his dialogue that’s so beautiful, and as we traded notes, I realized this is a guy who is going to put his heart and soul into it, just like the way I work on my own creative projects,” he adds.
“‘Round midnight’ is a beautiful, beautiful story told in this intimate storytelling way in a space that is special,” Shelton says. “It’s the same place where I directed and wrote the play I acted in as my first play, and it’s a very special place to a lot of people over the past 30 years and I’m very excited that this is the show we’re coming back with. It does 30 years of history at Planet Ant justice.”
At 23, Street is a young playwright, but he’s from a generation that has come of age at a tumultuous point in history. He draws from those experiences in his work, though he tends to steer away from explicit political messaging. “What we’re seeing in theaters now, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a lot of heavy-handedness that happens — a lot of political statements, and I’m not a politician, and a lot of theaters would ask me to betray my own artistic tendencies to be political,” he explains.
Planet Ant, he noticed, focuses on the kind of programming that feels more in line with what he wanted to do with “‘round midnight.” “I knew they would allow me to just write what I want to and that they would see the value in that, knowing that I already live in a very political body,” he says. “This play happening here in and of itself is a piece of radicalism,” he adds, referring to Planet Ant’s home in Hamtramck, which has recently made national headlines for banning the Pride flag on public property.
The play, which runs for about an hour without an intermission, tracks closely to Street’s personal life, though it isn’t truly autobiographical. The production focuses on Elijah, played by Street, who is going through the grief of a recent breakup and recounting the stumbles of past relationships. Some have been tumultuous, even torturous, while others bring up “really fucking funny” memories. “I would tell audiences they’re gonna feel the range of emotions and probably see themselves on the stage through this character I conjured up,” Street says. “But ultimately, it’s this betrayal of self that happens to people in relationships — we have these voids and want to fill them with the next person.”
“Here’s what Will won’t tell you because he’s modest,” Shelton interjects, “but this play, it ranges from beautiful and romantic to heartbreaking and everything in between. You will laugh, and you’ll laugh some more, and then you’ll cry. And then by the end, the message that comes out is really a beautiful one.”
One thing that audiences won’t be hit over the head with, both Shelton and Street agree, is that this is a “gay play.” “It’s not necessarily a production about gayness,” Shelton says. “Yes, it’s a show about a gay man and his life, but gayness isn’t the drama of it. It’s love and relationships and the universal truths of heartbreak and betrayal, infidelity, first love, nostalgia, and there’s even a Sam Smith throughline here.”
“The way I put it,” Street says, “is that this show is just a radical act of normalcy. It’s simply relationship dynamics but told through the homosexual lens, and I think, as a community, we deserve those stories.”
Street notes that there have been several big movie productions in the past several years focused on heavy themes like slavery. “And not every movie featuring a Black person needs to be a slave movie in the same way that not every gay show needs to be chock full of trauma. I don’t talk about the social importance of being gay here as the main theme.”
That said, Street is quick to pay homage to the gay and queer ancestors who came before him in the theater world. “This is the product of the work of generations of sacrifices and I think I wouldn’t be doing those who came before me justice to only harp on that shit because they went through it so I wouldn’t have to,” he says. “I do think my perspective is a privilege given to me from Marsha P. Johnson, from Stonewall rioters, from generations of queer Detroiters. I’m just grateful to be able to carry the torch in a way that I think, honestly, truly honors my queer ancestry.”
The world premiere of “‘round midnight//i got it bad (and that ain’t good)” is set for Aug. 11-26 at Planet Ant’s Black Box Theater (2320 Caniff St., Hamtramck). Ticket link at planetant.com.