Motor City breakdown 

Rumor has it that Meadow Brook Theatre playwright-in-residence Karim Alrawi gleaned the idea for his most recent work from an article in Hour, the local lifestyle magazine. Reading about the relationship between wealthy arts patron and Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford and Communist painter Diego Rivera, Alrawi saw the seed of a play. Unfortunately, A Gift of Glory: Edsel Ford and the Diego Rivera Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts shows us that stories which may read well don’t always translate on stage.

This is especially disappointing because the story behind the commissioning of Rivera’s "Detroit Industry" frescoes in 1932 is a particularly interesting one. Paid for by Edsel and opposed by his father, Henry Ford, the world-famous murals cover four walls in the DIA’s Garden Court — now called Rivera Court.

Based on extensive study of Ford’s Rouge complex, the frescoes hail Detroit’s contributions to labor, industry and technology, as well as Rivera’s hope that industrialization would engender an egalitarian society. Viewed by many right-wingers, including the elder Ford, as communist propaganda and sacrilege, Rivera’s creation provoked a public outcry. Eight thousand automobile workers and other laborers formed a militia to protect the murals from those who would have them whitewashed.

Despite such rich material to work with, Alrawi’s play fails on several levels. The foremost problem is his focus. While the murals’ complex representation of the foundations of Detroit is fascinating in and of itself, as are elements of the lives of both Diego Rivera and Edsel Ford, Alrawi’s contrived relationship between the two men serves as a weak vehicle for addressing such topics as labor unrest, commie scares and discord between father and son. The entire work lacks momentum as a result. Alrawi would have done well to focus on the antagonistic relationship between Edsel and his father, as this plotline was the play’s strongest.

Secondly, although his account is fictional, Alrawi is completely overwhelmed by facts. In an attempt to ensure that the play will resonate beyond Detroit — or its suburbs, as the case may be — as well as with locals who may not know the history of the murals, Alrawi attempts to work far too much basic history into the dialogue: e.g. "I’ve listened to your broadcasts from Royal Oak, Father Coughlin."

The play’s cumbersome title is but one indication of the clunky verbiage throughout. From the forced prologue, in which a Detroit Free Press reporter — whose interview techniques resemble those of bad 1970s TV detectives more than those of any journalists I know — meets up with Henry Ford’s former goon Harry Bennett, to the lakeside discussion between Edsel and his wife Eleanor wrapping up all loose ends at the play’s conclusion, Alrawi never manages to meld exposition with eloquence.

Alrawi’s characters are his third strike. Every single one falls flat, but it is his attempt to use notorious thug Bennett, Henry Ford’s right-hand man and head of security, as comic relief that is not only ridiculous, but most likely offensive to anyone familiar with the real Bennett’s inhumanity. Especially in a city now just as famous for union-busting as labor solidarity, it’s difficult to laugh at a guy with union blood on his hands. Even when Alrawi attempts to demonstrate Bennett’s true depravity, Hollis Huston’s bumbling portrayal lacks the intensity to convey the fear the real-life Bennett certainly instilled in Ford’s employees. To add insult to injury, Alrawi tosses in a ridiculously soap-operatic scene in which Bennett attempts to seduce Eleanor. I did cringe at this scene, I’ll admit, but it was out of embarrassment for the playwright and actors.

Rivera, too, serves more as a comic backdrop than a vehicle for imparting a deeper understanding of perhaps his most important work. That actor Chris De Oni’s Mexican accent borders on the pejorative only makes matters worse. In between throwaway one-liners, the artist dutifully points out, on several occasions, the contradiction of a communist working for a capitalist, and details the fresco-making process, in language largely lifted from the real Rivera’s autobiography and other widely read texts. However, these trite details offer us no new insight into the artist, the frescoes or his relationship to Ford.

When Alrawi finally gets around to addressing the power of Rivera’s work, it is to directly credit the murals with instigation of the labor movement. A more thoughtful study of the significance of the murals to Detroit’s laborers, and vice versa, would have been welcome.

"If you want to destroy a nation, you destroy their art," remarks Rivera early in the play. And if you want to dishonor art, you write a really bad play about it.

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