The scrappy warrior

Tyree Guyton began building his junk art environment on Heidelberg Street in 1986, using the refuse of everyday life, transforming vacant houses and lots in his beat-up neighborhood into a candy-colored wonderland that soaked up the sadness and soot.

In 1991, Mayor Coleman A. Young brought a posse of cops and bulldozers, giving Guyton 15 minutes to grab his paintings and run as the buildings folded. That didn’t stop Guyton. The same year, he began to rebuild his world. He found an old school bus, covering it and the rest of a city with polka dots. Two years after that, the city demolished 30 percent of it. Once more, Guyton began again.

For two decades, artist Tyree Guyton has been a central character in the Detroit cultural landscape. He is a protagonist and antagonist who has been glorified and demonized by the media, received awards and demolition orders from the government, and has been deemed a prophet and phony by the public. His work is exhibited across the country, yet rejected in his backyard. To this day, it beckons tourists and protesters.

Regardless of where you stand, the story of the rise, fall, rise again, fall again and rise even again of the Heidelberg Project has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. Poet and playwright Ron Allen realized that awhile ago, and has written Heidelberg: Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mind, a one-act play directed by John Jakary, which opens this weekend at the Furniture Factory. The play is a state of dramatic consciousness depicted through abstract dialogue and extreme body language.

As usual, Allen moves his stories along by conveying feelings rather than presenting a sequence of events. Tropes and metaphors may seem too fancy for a story about a man who Dumpster-dives, but Guyton’s struggle may surprise audience members: Enduring a Ron Allen play, we too are forced to seek beauty amid chaos.

Like Guyton’s art environment, Allen’s poetry is built from words we toss off. When he puts it together, it makes for astonishingly beautiful imagery, such as this line from the play: “Nipples, nickels and niggers, dancing on the needle head of America.”

In this show, Guyton (Oliver Pookrum) is presented as a Christ figure, and anonymous characters such as “citizen,” “saint” and “official” represent the types of people he fights for and against. Grandpa Sam Mackey (Nelson Jones), Guyton’s mentor and himself a celebrated artist, is the only other character with definition — he’s a sage when Guyton needs to unwind and unload. Another traditional element of Greek theater, the chorus, represents Guyton’s conscience, revealing the artist’s internal conflicts.

There’s one thing lacking in Heidelberg — or more accurately, quite a few: It would have been nice if the set had been overrun by Guyton’s cracked plastic toys, rusted home appliances, bent car hoods and pieces of painted plywood. Here is a real opportunity to visually convey the clutter in Guyton’s mind. Unfortunately, the set design features only a handful of items from the Heidelberg Project.

Although many Greek tragedies end in misfortune for the main character, there are those in which some good comes in a larger sense. Near the end of this performance, Guyton says, “I am running to the beat of the cement, running from orgasm, running from illusion.” This is a superb allegory about the art world at large. The character of Guyton is fighting for his personal right to create art where and how he chooses. But he’s also trying to dispel the myth that a museum-quality “masterpiece” — the art that is most often about “orgasm” and “illusion” — is anything other than a yellowing canvas of peeling paint that will some day disintegrate.

Junk art, although it may look worse for wear, is about resiliency, about finding what lasts, despite our abuse. Allen’s Heidelberg, although at times obscure, is just as important. He digs through all the crap that fills American language, seeking meaningful words, arranging them in a new way so we can find life in the twisted tornado of “revolution smoothies and cocaine boogers.”


The Heidelberg Project runs 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 30, with 4 p.m. Sunday performances on Oct. 23 and 30, at the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit. Call 313-671-6096 for tickets.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]