Sad farewell to famous playwright

Jul 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

At a play called Crack Steppin’ sat an elementary school kid in a downtown Detroit theater. It was the early 1980s and playwright Ron Milner’s production gave the boy a dramatic look at the devastation of crack, a devastation the boy would witness in his community for decades to come. The play had a lasting impact.

That boy was me. Twenty-some years later, I bore witness again to the forceful voice of Detroit director, poet and playwright Milner. This time, I was among some 200 friends and admirers who gathered at the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts in downtown Detroit for Milner’s July 13 memorial service. Milner died July 9 at age 66 of complications from cancer.

At the Music Hall, the atmosphere often felt more like a Milner production than a sad occasion. There were some tears offered sweetly but only occasionally, in between upbeat jazz sets, almost like brief intermissions to the show. Milner loved jazz, as a few of the speakers reminded the audience. So it was perhaps most fitting that vocalist Norman Thrasher, near the close of the evening, led bassist Ralph Armstrong and a few others in a jazzed-up performance of a blues classic.

“Everyday! Everyday I have the blues!” Thrasher belted the words of the song of the same title.

Other moments were poignant.

“As a sorcerer of words, your black magic erased the language of hate,” poet and Wayne State University professor Dr. Melba Boyd read to the audience. “Your death stopped my breath,” she said, “… but like a breeze off the Detroit River, your passing is our rebirth.”

During his lifetime, three of Milner’s plays, What the Wine-sellers Buy, Don’t Get God Started and Checkmates, were performed on Broadway. World-renowned actors, including Denzel Washington, Ruby Dee and Giancarlo Esposito, delivered lines as Milner’s characters. Yet the man chose to remain in his hometown, near the former Black Bottom neighborhood in which he grew up. He watched as theaters everywhere abandoned the cultural and historical legacy of producing plays about the kind of real, struggling but proud men and women who inhabited places like Black Bottom and instead embraced the dollars generated by clichéd works about finding a good man who isn’t secretly gay or headed for prison.

Throughout his life, Milner kept his artistic dignity. As if to offer proof, luminaries of the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti, sent their regards, which were relayed to the Music Hall audience. The following day, flowers from soul music legend Aretha Franklin were displayed at a funeral ceremony at Detroit’s Perfecting Church. The service also featured a formal processional of traditional African drummers, contemporary vocalists and dancers.

Lisa McCall, a local choreographer, coordinated the processional and called it a fitting tribute to her mentor.

“He loved dance and he loved music. He was encouraging to artists in every area. He did everything in authenticity, and he wanted authenticity from other artists. That’s why we respect Ron.”

As I listened to the words of actors, authors and protégés of Milner’s about the award-winning playwright, the dramatic words and images of Crack Steppin’ came back to me. It is clear that the man and his work had a strong impact on many people.

“It’s still hard to believe,” that he’s gone, said T. Pharaoh Muhammad at the memorial service. Muhammad, inspired by writers like Milner, co-founded ’Bout Time Publishing, a Detroit company for writers and poets. Muhammad said he only recently attended a “Roast and Toast” for Milner at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

“Ron Milner was and will continue to be an esoteric link to the heart and soul of black theater in America and Detroit, specifically. All of us (in the local arts community) have been touched in one way or another by this one man.”

Eddie Allen is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]