Mosaic Youth Theatre has done it again, and this is not a gloss. There's little to criticize about the latest Mosaic offering, Hastings Street, which tips a hat to Detroit's fabled Black Bottom neighborhood.
Originally presented during the city's tri-centennial five years ago, the play was based on oral histories culled from residents, then in their 70s and 80s, who had lived through the Detroit of 1945 in which the play is set.
Hastings Street is told through the experience of the kids at old Black Bottom's Youth Guidance Center (the Y-Gees), a teen group that existed during the black Detroit neighborhood's heyday. The teens struggle to write and choreograph a play for an upcoming talent competition organized by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Legendary poet Langston Hughes is called in as a favor to coach the group; he advises the kids to focus on the story of Black Bottom and its cultural epicenter, Hastings Street.
It's a sly story angle in that it opens the door to an entertaining view of a vibrant neighborhood born out of racism and poverty, and ultimately destroyed to make way for I-75. Instead of delving too deeply into the controversial topics, though, the play gives voice to the youth of that time through the young actors of today. The Y-Gees revisit the days when the majority of Detroit's population was white, when neighbors whupped other neighbors' children for misbehaving. The actors handle a play that is heavy on discourse during its first half, and much more physical after intermission. Frankly, Black Bottom has an intricate history, and there's a lot to learn. Humor, then, goes a long way in keeping the oral recollections interesting and entertaining. It's woven through the dialogue, and Council Cargle, playing Hughes, adds experience and character insight.
Though Mosaic's cast is adept at playing characters of any age, here they don't have to reach beyond their years. Many members perform with energy that begs for careers in the arts, or at least makes strong statements about their confidence. (Much of the credit goes to Mosaic founder Rick Sperling and his staff.) It's also highly encouraging to see them confronting racial issues so passionately at such a young age. But there are also starker moments, like the realization that Detroit, known for historic buildings that provide a visual history, boasts no remnant of Paradise Valley, save for two blocks of Hastings near the New Center area.
The greatest challenges in the play come from the technical end. At times, it's hard to hear the dialogue. Some of the students are still developing their voices, and there are a few moments where the microphones at stage front may fail to pick up dialogue clearly. Thankfully, there aren't too many such moments.
The play's high point is a tour of Hastings Street that illustrates how everything from a celebration of a Joe Louis victory to a sermon by the Rev. C.L. Franklin can take place on one spirited night. This is where the Mosaic cast gets to show everything it can do. The acting, singing, dancing and passion come together here in a triumphant display.
Hastings Street comes to a solemn conclusion, as opposed to any riveting climax. And you leave with the feeling that these actors have been exposed to a Detroit they may have never known otherwise. Seeing this encapsulated version of the city's sociopolitical history is a reminder of how the past can shape our perspective of the present, and our outlook on the future. It's well worth scheduling the production's final weekend into your plans.
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 8 p.m., May 19-20, and at 4 p.m. on May 20. Tickets are $12-$18. For more info visit mosaicdetroit.org.Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]mes.com.