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Tuesday, 08 November 2011 01:12

The impossible dream

Written by Bob Wilcox
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The Details

From the comments made by playwright Joanna McClelland Glass before the opening night performance of Palmer Park, I take it that her play pretty much reconstructs what happened in the Detroit neighborhood of the title in the late 1960s and early '70s, when she and her family lived there.

We first meet a young white couple, the Townsends, just arrived in Detroit as he joins the faculty at Wayne State University. They're amazed to discover that they can buy almost a mansion for a song, because it's in an inner-city neighborhood. But it's a neighborhood filled with other middle- and upper-middle-class professionals, all determinedly re-habbing and scrupulously maintaining their large old homes. Best of all, for good white '60s liberals, the neighborhood is integrated.

The Townsends get to know their next-door African-American neighbors, the Hazeltons. He's a pediatrician, she's a stay-at-home mom. Their daughters walk to school together – the neighborhood public school, carefully watched over by the local parents, who go door to door to raise money to provide supplies like textbooks that the cash-strapped Detroit public school system can't afford. And they all help their neighbor the real-estate agent recruit white families to move into the neighborhood to maintain the racial balance.

The Townsends learn some things from the Hazeltons about what it means to be black in America. We all get brief lectures and almost sermons from the Palmer Park residents, both within the scenes they play and as they move downstage to address us directly in the docudrama style of the piece. It's all amusing and enlightening.

But the dramatic temperature runs lukewarm until the outside world breaches the carefully maintained defenses of Palmer Park's integrated paradise. The neighborhood on the other side of the dividing line, the avenue with the upscale stores where Palmer Park shops, belongs to blue-collar auto workers. Black, of course. Their children attend an overcrowded, underachieving public school. These parents want the Board of Education to send the overflow to Palmer Park's school. Palmer Park puts up a fight, but we know who lost that fight in the inner cities – everyone. Playwright Glass raises the tension now, with fascinating racial dynamics.

The play calls for standard realistic acting, which this cast, under Ron Himes' direction, easily masters. Chad Morris and Rachel Hanks play the Townsends, stumbling their way to racial understanding. Reginald Pierre, who brings out subtle background shades in his up-from-the-projects M.D., and Jeanitta Perkins are the Hazeltons. Philip Dixon plays a lawyer and doubles as the blue-collar spokesman, and Candice Jackson is his wife, both proud of their Howard degrees. Tom Wethington is the realtor and Laura Coppinger his wife, dynamic head of the PTA. Aaron Orion Baker plays a furniture store owner and Emily Baker his wife, perhaps the most distraught by the death of Palmer Park.

Patrick Huber's set and lighting have an attractively simple flexibility, aided by well-done projections, though Himes tends to use the set to arrange group scenes in weak chorus circles. Jennifer "JC" Krajicek's costumes define time and character, with period music from Robin Weatherall.

A joint production by The Black Rep and St. Louis Actors' Studio that's playing at the History Museum, Palmer Park nicely captures a moment of hope and failure in the life and death of an American city.

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