Oct. 28 2009 12:00 AM

MSU opens Big Ten collaboration with story of race in post-riot Detroit


While some theatrical performances offer viewers the chance to essentially “check out” for an hour or two, others seize the opportunity to provoke, educate and enlighten audiences during the short time they have their attention. Joanna McClelland Glass' play “Palmer Park,” aims for the latter.

Mixing the legacy of the Detroit riots of the 1960s with conversation about still-relevant racial and economic relations, the play is a reflection of the past that stimulates thought on contemporary issues.

The play is making its American debut this week with a production by the Michigan State University Theatre Department under the direction of Chaya Gordon-Bland,

“Palmer Park” follows the story of five couples of different cultural backgrounds living in the Palmer Park neighborhood of Detroit and their struggles with racial integration in the aftermath of the 1967 riot. The play highlights the story of the Townsends, a white couple who recently moved to the area, and their new neighbors, the African-American Hazeltons.

Set over the course of four years, the play depicts how these couples deal with the topics of racism, societal inclusion and economics and how all three of these factors affect the city’s education system.

Given the social importance and regional connection to the play, Gordon-Bland said the work is not one people should attend expecting to forget about the outside world for a couple of hours.

“I want the play to invoke the audience to ask questions of themselves; it’s not a tidy play,” Gordon-Bland said. “You don’t come away with the answer.”

Considering the economic woes Michigan and the nation face today, as well as still-existent racial tension in society, the topics and themes addressed are still applicable, despite being set more than 40 years ago. “A lot of the things that come up through this story are tremendously relevant now,” Gordon-Bland said.

Many of the student actors are from Detroit, and as a result of their first-hand experience with the city, Gordon-Bland said a large part of the creative process has been discussion and debate over the questions they want the play to ask the audience.

The play is an autobiographical account of Glass’ experiences after moving to Detroit with her husband and children in the fall of 1968, and she said today she unfortunately still sees some of the racial and integration issues depicted in the play. “It’s just a great sadness that all this still pertains,” she said.

Overall, Glass said she hopes viewers will take away a message of tolerance from “Palmer Park.” The play made its world premiere during the summer of 2008 at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Canada, and now, in addition to making its American debut at MSU, “Palmer Park” is also the premiere performance of the Big Ten Theatre Initiative.

Started about a year ago, the Initiative is a collaborative project by Big Ten universities to jointly participate in the production of a single play in varying capacities. Some schools may only perform readings of the play, some may host discussions, and some will stage a full performance.

Kirk Domer, acting chairman of the MSU Theatre Department, called hosting the premiere performance of the Big Ten Theatre Initiative “a feather in the cap,” and added that staging the first American performance of the play is also no small accomplishment.

“We want to be able to say, ‘Look, we did this,’” he said. Domer added that he hopes the Initiative, and what MSU has taken on, can help push other members of the Big Ten to accomplish more down the road. “It’s a thing we’re very proud of,” he said.

Glass was also proud to have her work be the first play selected for the conference-wide collaboration. “I am thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled,” she said.

Glass said one of the most rewarding things about “Palmer Park”'s being a part of the Initiative is how it helps educate the students involved on such an important time in history. “They’re all going and doing their research,” she said. “It will be a whole new thing for them.”