Oct. 28 2009 12:00 AM

MSU's “Palmer Park” a better lesson than play

Photo courtesy of MSU Theatre Department

As history lessons go, the play “Palmer Park” is fairly entertaining. As a play, it’s an hour of exposition, a halfhour of drama and a halfhour of meandering denouement. Which is to say, “Palmer Park” has more value as a teaching tool than as a dramatic production.

The play tells the story of an attempt to create and maintain an idyllic, integrated neighborhood in the wake of the 1967 race riots in Detroit. A white family, the Townsends, moves into the Palmer Park neighborhood next door to the black Hazletons. After their uncomfortable first meeting, the families soon become friends and join in the effort to maintain the proper integration ratio of 35 percent black, 65 percent white in the neighborhood and school.

This ratio, along with many other racial and social issues, are investigated against this backdrop. The issues are not simply black and white; as the plot develops, the professional black families west of Livernois Avenue are pitted against the blue-collar black families east of Livernois.

One especially rewarding aspect of this production is that it allows black student actors to play black characters, a rare opportuinty in theater education.

When it comes to acting, the women make a stronger showing overall than the men in the cast.

Brandon Piper, as pediatrician Fletcher Hazleton, is capable in his role, but his over-annunciation becomes distracting, particularly because it doesn’t ring true as a Midwestern affection. In a final powerful monologue, Piper finally has the chance to strongly emote and break his methodical speech pattern, and it is his finest moment in the role.

Sam Tkac plays dual roles, as Jewish real estate agent Sol Rifkin and Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Aaron Meyer. He plays Meyer as quietly commanding, but he overplays Rifkin physically, with splayed hands and a lengthy wingspan.

Wes Haskell imbues Iowa-born idealist Martin Townsend with just the right amount of aw-shucks naivet, but a bit more maturity would have helped him carry the role better. In fact, the youthfulness of the cast overall impacts the gravity of the subject matter. It's hard to imagine these actors as 30-something professionals with families dealing with an issue as heavy as integration. They are far too buoyant in their delivery, with nary a trace of the world-weariness of people trying to create new societal norms.

The exception is Char’Tavia Mushatt, who plays Linda Hazleton, wife of the pediatrician. She brings a better understanding of her character to her role, and she plays it very close to age-appropriate. Mushatt’s performance is by far the most authentic.

Supporting actress Piaget Ventus plays Alice Marshall, wife of successful black lawyer Ron Marshall, with elegance and class. Her anti-feminist power speech near the end is particularly moving. With subtle but effective changes in physicality and tone of voice, she does double-time as stern school principal Mrs. Percy.

Sound designer Lucas Nunn’s programming of topical '60s and '70s music not only sets the tone for upcoming plot developments, but it also makes transitions between scenes downright enjoyable. About the time Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” kicks in, some opening night audience members could no longer contain themselves and started singing along. Of course, at two hours in, the audience needed something to invigorate them.

The play runs about 15 minutes longer than necessary, with a tedious denouement designed to neatly tie up the stories of the Palmer Park families. The drama would have been heightened if playwright Joanna McClelland Glass had simply ended the play at the point where the neighborhood’s dreams were declared dead.

There were no simple solutions to the racial issues faced by its residents, nor are the issues a thing of the past. To give everyone a happy ending is to pull the punch on the complex, heartbreaking veracity Glass spent the previous two hours creating.

'Palmer Park'

By Joanna McClelland Glass

Through Nov. 1

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

8 p.m. Friday

3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday

2 p.m. Sunday

MSU Theatre Departmetn, Auditorium Arena Theatre, MSU


(517) 355-6690