That was then, this is now 

It’s 1949 — six years before the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till will spark national outrage, all the more so when Southern whites responsible for his murder go scot-free. In Halifax, N.C., African-Americans are still living in the constant shadow of the laws that bind them (Jim Crow) and the laws that fail to protect them (everything else). Detroit Repertory Theatre’s No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs bears witness to this crucial time in American history. And, as the title suggests, this drama not only explores hate crimes in terms of black and white, but also delves into racism on a larger scale — especially that experienced by Jews.

The play revolves around the struggle of Halifax resident Mattie Cheeks (Amber Hemphill) to lend emotional support to her family. And they need it. Racism is real; money’s short and, to make matters worse, a white man’s hanging out on the front porch all day. Sure, Yaveni (Gregory Olszewski) claims to be a Jewish scholar researching similarities between black and Jewish racial suffering for a book. But as the days pass and Yaveni becomes her husband Rawl’s (Harold Hogan) chess partner, Mattie’s not so sure. The “scholar” seems to favor getting “all up in her business” over researching.

When Rawl lands a three-month job assignment out of town, Mattie swallows her disappointment. After all, she has daughters Joyce (Stacey J. Weddle) and Matoka (Baseemah L. Mustafaa) to raise. A chilling, black-shrouded specter named “Aunt Cora” (Casaundra Freeman) also shows up nightly to collect a basket of food from her porch. It’s tough without the support of a husband and father, but the women in Mattie’s family make do. They have to. It’s only when a horrible crime is committed that the convictions Mattie’s always drawn on to hold her family together threaten to tear her family apart.

If a bit melodramatic at times, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs is unflinching in its portrayal of Southern hate crimes. And author John Henry Redwood adds an interesting twist to the story with the jovial, lonely character of Yaveni. This Jewish scholar can’t seem to keep his ears or his mouth closed, but after he overhears Mattie’s account of the crime, Yaveni’s two cents-worth of advice adds depth to the plot. On the one hand, he’s white and part of the problem. On the other, he’s Jewish and has suffered racial injustice throughout his life.

African-American women’s selflessness in the face of strife is the truly heart-wrenching story here, though. Aunt Cora takes on a surprising significance as Mattie relays the older woman’s pre-recluse history of suffering. And Mattie herself has been a pillar of emotional strength for so many years that it’s hard to imagine Rawl without her.

“I never asked you to be superman, just my man,” Mattie tells Rawl, as he threatens to leave her over events that have taken place in his absence. When the world beat him down, she cried the tears he couldn’t because “I knew you were the man the world out there was too afraid to let you be.”

Hemphill and Hogan are a believable couple, through good times and bad, for better or for worse. But despite all the adult issues going on in No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, it’s Mustafaa who practically steals the show as 11-year-old Matoka. The role could easily be overdone by an adult actress (Mustafaa is a drama student at Wayne State University). Exploding with little-girl energy, however, Mustafaa giggles, sings and moves so naturally, it’s not just an adult portrayal of childhood. It is childhood. You can feel it.

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs was named after a real billboard posted outside a Southern town in the ’40s, and it touches on issues of racial injustice that were electric in 1949 and are burning even now. The sighs and nods of the Detroit Rep audience make it clear, that, although in our politically correct world, the lynching of affirmative action may be modern headline news, there are profound issues addressed in this play that still resonate today. And in that way, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs lives up to its slogan: “A sign of the times.”

No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs by John Henry Redwood is at Detroit Repertory Theatre (13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit) through March 23. Show times are Thursday and Friday, 8:30 p.m.; Saturday 3 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $17. Call 313-863-1347.

Kari Jones writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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