Into the light 

So you’ve done it! You’ve spent hours over scribbled napkins and paper scraps, drunk your way to the bottom of myriad coffee cups and managed to funnel all those loose words and ideas into a theatrical script that’s comprehensible, maybe a little crazy, but definitely worth something. The problem is, you’ve been looking at the thing for so long, you have no idea what you have anymore. What now?

Take it to Black Mouth Reader’s Theater, which happens the second Sunday of each month at the Unitarian-Universalist Church (Cass at Forest). Just go through the red door off Forest Avenue and enter into the exploration of freshly created, innovative theatrical works by Detroit writers. Begun last October, Black Mouth is the exciting brainchild of playwrights Carla Harryman and Ron Allen, existing for that moment when life is breathed into a written work for the first time — when an author can hear their words come alive off the page, through the mouths of others and into the ears and minds of listeners who have the important job of reacting.

Harryman is a well-respected word artist, having established a solid reputation with her prose, poetry, playwriting and directing, first as a resident of the San Francisco Bay area and now Detroit. (She’s a full-time English lecturer at Wayne State University.) And what writer in Detroit isn’t aware of Ron Allen’s atomically potent poetics and playwriting, not to mention prolificacy (Allen’s play The Last Church of the 20th Century is currently running at the Zeitgeist)? Together, Harryman and Allen are an unconventional force with an unlimited amount of determination and energy to do something about what they see as Detroit’s theatrical weaknesses.

Last November, Black Mouth presented Elif Celibi’s Red Dress, a cryptic, concentrated verbal essence of the push-and-pull between a man and woman. Actors and writers sat in a row and read the raw text without any movement or rehearsal, with Allen on bongos to break up the scenes.

Black Mouth readers are given a script about a week ahead of time and asked to look it over, then to read it cold or semicold in a room with multiple angles and levels like a funhouse. Other voices become part of the process for the writers, helping them hear what they’ve only imagined up until then. But participation doesn’t stop there, because Black Mouth is a dialectical forum as well, a place to openly discuss what was just heard, the writer’s and the reader’s reaction, the techniques of representation used … anything that comes to mind in order to develop a writing community that encourages and inspires creative thought and text.

And it happened once again at the January meeting, when Allen presented his newest work, Eye/Mouth Graffiti Body Shop. He had hoped to get a sense of the rhythms and sounds of his work from a distance, but wasn’t satisfied with what he received. Not all of the readers were prepared enough to read his piece, which is incredibly concentrated and difficult for mouths that aren’t used to pushing the universe through them as fast as possible. From the listener’s perspective, one heard an unconscious catharsis, a recipe for the magic of life breaking all thought down into beautiful poetic bites, its overall purpose to describe the death and rebirth of the city of Detroit. Disappointed, but not dissuaded, Allen learned from Black Mouth that more preparation is necessary for such difficult works.

Allen’s piece is due to go up at the SereNgeti Ballroom this April, with none other than Tyree Guyton designing the costumes and sets. In Allen’s words, his and Harryman’s joint vision is to “... develop a coterie of people who can come together and produce work that’s innovative and challenges our sense of politics and aesthetics. (Our children) are living in a culture of literalness and never get deeper into the imagination or the parts of themselves that are more abstract.”

Something is happening on the dark stages of Detroit, and it’s long overdue. With new theatrical entities popping up such as the Abreact Playhouse and Walk & Squawk, and spaces such as the Zeitgeist and the Furniture Factory getting more and more of a “take-me-seriously” reputation, the abstract and unconventional is finding a new home. Black Mouth Reader’s Theater is helping to change the literal-representational atmosphere in Detroit theater, so that people are encouraged to break out of what they know and into something unknown, in order to give the city’s cultural evolution a little kick in its poetic pants.

I asked Allen where the name for the project came from: “It comes from the proscenium (theater), when you come into the theater, it’s like walking into a black mouth … I thought about that being, literally, the symbol that we work out of ... this black mouth we call theater.”

Black Mouth Reader’s Theater continues it’s non-representational presentations with Jennifer Ginzinger’s Committed on Feb. 11, and Ron Trice’s The Game on March 11, both beginning at 8 p.m.

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at

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