Justice in the wings

Apr 25, 2001 at 12:00 am

When community groups decide to collectively take a stance against politicians, big business or other community groups, they often reach out by staging peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins and sometimes hunger strikes. Not Matrix Theatre Company. When the troupe decides to take on an economic, environmental, political or community event, it puts its issues and concerns onstage — not on a picket sign.

A 10-year-old theater group in southwest Detroit, Matrix has confronted several issues that affect neighborhoods and the city in general. Led by director Wes Nethercott and his wife Shaun, Matrix addressed the violence that permeated Detroit in the early ’90s with the play Fear and Faith, and damage to Detroit’s ecosystem with Once Was Paradise.

Once Matrix determines that an issue is about to erupt, Wes joins creative forces with other writers in the community to develop a play. The newest project, Ambassador, aptly named after the Detroit-Windsor bridge, was written by Wes and three other cultural workers to confront the issue of community rights.

“This is one of the big issues,” says Shaun Nethercott, Matrix’s executive director. “Do we have the right to control what happens in our neighborhood?” That’s the question Ambassador asks, but allows the audience to answer on its own.

As Matrix prepares to perform its latest play, the Mexicantown neighborhood is currently being courted by residents who want to transform the area into what Shaun describes as a walking district, while the Detroit International Bridge Company wants to expand its operations. If the company succeeds, homes across the street from the theater will soon be gone.

Shaun describes the company’s technique as “demolish by neglect.” By this she means that once a resident sells to the bridge company, the company allows the building to fall into disrepair, encouraging remaining neighbors to sell their homes too. And when the residents leave, the bridge company obtains the land.

“It’s not just here,” says Shaun. “This is the [method of operation] for the city. It’s the way they’ve been doing over at Graimark [the controversial east side development] as well.”

(For the record, Dan Stamper, president of the bridge company, says charges of demolition by neglect are “absolutely not true.” He said residents have approached the company to sell homes, and homes are demolished “once we get approval from the city.”)

In Ambassador, two main characters, Lydia Mendoza (Alaina Crenshaw), a resident of a neighborhood similar to southwest Detroit, and Webster Pierce (Hugh Duneghy II), a development juggernaut, are on opposite sides. Lydia and her community want to prevent Pierce from buying and destroying homes in order to build a new bridge.

But, as in age-old stories and fables from every culture, Lydia is seduced by Pierce and his power, and switches sides. Still wanting to believe that she is working in the best interest of her community, she starts to see the advantages of Pierce and his new bridge. Not until someone is killed and she is betrayed by Pierce — physically and emotionally — does Lydia come to her senses. But it may be too late for the community to stop Pierce.

“Lydia is very multifaceted,” says 30-year-old Crenshaw about her character. “I wouldn’t want to make that same mistake. How far will you go for money? She went all the way.” Crenshaw recently moved to Detroit from Atlanta and has been acting since she was 8.

Duneghy, 30, has worked with the Plowshares Theatre group as well. About his role, Duneghy says, “Pierce is very interesting with all the different dimensions of his character. He’s so driven and ambitious, and I can relate to certain things [about him].”

Ambassador juggles love, community, politics and activism to try to help the audience decide who owns the community and why we fall in love with our oppressors.

“Is the community a relationship among people or is it for sale?” asks Shaun. “Can you sell people’s cultures?”

Curtrise Garner writes about style and substance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]