After a near run-in with some toughs on the block, Antonio and his friend Camellia rush from their southwest Detroit neighborhood up to the roof of the old Michigan Central Station. Once they get a chance to catch their breath, they stand before a mural Antonio has painted, wondering what life has in store for them. Antonio fancies himself being a great artist one day, like Diego Rivera. Camellia hopes to go to college and pursue a career in business. Both of them hope to get away from the city, looking instead to the horizon that spreads out before them. But while they're still discussing their futures, a grizzled old man, a former station employee, sneaks up on them, and is soon recounting the events of the past.
It's the opening sequence of Homelands: Michigan Central, and if it sounds a little contrived, that's because it is. Homelands grew out of an oral history project that aimed to translate untold stories into a stage play. In interviewing locals, the interviewers found one setting to be a unifying theme: Michigan Central Station, the behemoth building that has overlooked the squat southwest landscape since 1913.
This script, written by committee, presents snapshots that characterize an often esoteric past. The young couple serves a technical purpose, helping to mortar together these stories and perhaps enlighten kids in the audience about how little things have changed.
For those familiar with the history, the poverty of a freight-hopper conjures images from the Depression era, when Detroit was a desperate way station for work-starved folk, the men who caught winks in Grand Circus Park in between the taps of a billy club. For the uninitiated or the young, the play traces scarce outlines that must be filled in later. Unfortunately it never really captures the sweep of the period.
Despite this shortcoming, Homelands offers a straightforward and vivid telling of popular history, tales that wouldn't get told elsewhere. What it sacrifices in plot and characterization it gains in a sense of community and place, a feeling that's made all the more potent by leaving the theater and seeing the real station.
The ensemble's subtle portrayals give this production a grace that keeps you watching. Each actor must step in and out of multiple roles, but their flourishes briefly bring the characters to life Doug Dillard's polite but insistent picketer and Steve Sharp's unflappable janitor are but two examples. The vignette featuring Remi Escordi as lefty Detroit cleric Father Kern is also notable. It doesn't clinically outline Kern's progressive attitudes on unions and immigration; instead, Escordi portrays him going to bat for the powerless. In fact, the somewhat serious sequence transforms into a disarming antic, leaving the audience with a laugh.
Though its dramatic results are uneven, those wishing to learn more about Detroit history especially the radical end of the spectrum will find Homelands a unique experience. Most vignettes are of immigrants and the travails of workers, although some skits sketch people merely passing through. The vignettes are peopled with chanting Pullman porters and befuddled visitors. There are doofus policemen reacting to non-English speakers by talking louder, devastated immigrants forced to go home and departing soldiers comforting the loved ones they are leaving. You can sense the various viewpoints in the interviewees and, at times, the characters debate each other about what actually happened, rather than always providing pat answers.
This month Matrix celebrates its 15th anniversary on Bagley Street, and Homelands, which premiered a few years ago, is first in a series of notable plays reprised in celebration. The play was originally produced on a traditional stage, with dramatic slide projections that helped set the scene. Unfortunately, the space's new black box design dilutes the power it must have had in a head-on presentation. But, besides this one complaint, the theater's makeover is impressive. Those who've been away for a few years will be impressed with the new facade on an old home.
8 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m., Sundays, until April 2, at the Matrix Theatre, 2730 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-967-0999.Michael Jackman is a writer and copyeditor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]