Theater of concern comes home

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“We believe in the transformative power of art …” — the Matrix Theatre Company’s mission statement rings true in Homelands: Michigan Central, a local history lesson with an extra dose of community spirit.

Homelands comes from a community theater project that’s proud to show its grass roots. It was written by a local creative team headed by the play’s director, Wes Nethercott, and is performed and directed by local talent as well. The dialogue and scenes are based on oral histories and interviews given by Detroit-area residents — those who remember the old train station, also known as “the Midwest Ellis Island,” and downtown as it was as far back as 1913 when < a href="" target="_blank"> Michigan Central first opened its doors.

Offering up a thorough and thoughtful narrative, it plays history forward through the Pullman porter strike, the grape boycott, memories of Monsignor Kern, Diego Rivera’s painting of the murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the rise of the automobile industry. It wraps up with a siren-screaming, chaotic re-enactment of the 1967 Detroit riot and follows through to the station’s closing in 1988, with thoughts on its current abandoned, dilapidated state.

As the house lights dim, early black-and-white images of Michigan Central shine onto the dark arch that frames the bare stage. The building stands proud, beautiful, majestic.

The time is the present; the place is the upper level of the abandoned train station. A young gang-banger and graffiti artist named Antonio (Donny McNeal) spray paints a wall while arguing with his girlfriend, Munce (Helki Jackson), about the current state of their lives and their plans after high school. Who will stay in Detroit? Who will move to the suburbs? Don’t you wanna get out of this hellhole? What are you gonna do with your life?

The heated conversation is interrupted by an elderly homeless ghost of a man, George (Drew Creamer), who appears dressed in a tattered, dusty stationmaster’s uniform. A long series of consciousness-raising flashbacks is launched from that encounter as George relates a colorful oral history of Detroit. Moving through the years, the cast of eight plays 23 different roles: rioters, teamsters, cops, a priest, a soldier, mothers, children and a young woman who flees back to Mexico for fear of deportation. Creamer also plays Diego Rivera, and in one especially imaginative scene, a few of the other cast members pose as the workers depicted in the DIA murals.

A dramatic and heartfelt tribute to the Motor City, Homelands is the story of who came here, who left here and who remembers why. It tries to answer the old questions with memories and stories, but also attempts to articulate new ones about the present and future.

As George delivers his final monologue, saying goodbye to the neglected building and its memories, he urges young Antonio, who wants to stay in Detroit and find a job, and Munce, who plans on going to business school and moving to Southfield, to figure out where their own homelands are. It’s an idea that the Matrix Theatre Company already has a firm grasp on.

The company’s Matrix Studio down in Mexican Village just might be one of the tiniest playhouses in town. An inky reptilian logo marks the aging brick structure. Inside, there’s barely enough room for a table stocked with desserts and soft drinks, a cramped dressing room and theater seating for about 40 people. But experiencing the verve and earnestness that drives Homelands in such a room is a reminder that grand achievements, those by which the world is in fact transformed, often begin with an idea in a small place. Maybe a place just like this one.

Homelands: Michigan Central runs through May 19, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Matrix Theatre is at 2730 Bagley, Detroit. For more information, call 313-967-0999.

Norene Cashen writes about performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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