Keeping It Real
Community theater group production aims to spark conversations about police actions and race
When the then-new North Rosedale Park neighborhood on the northwest side of Detroit decided to allocate 7 acres of land in its center to focus on community, they happened to include a building with a full stage facility. That stage has housed The Park Players for more than six decades and helped the local theater group become a community staple — even if the building’s old electrical system is a little wonky.
In fact, Archie Lynch, the producer of this November’s play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, proudly calls The Park Players the “scrappiest” theater company in Detroit.
“I think there’s something to be said that we’re like the rest of the City of Detroit, and we’re making it happen and have been around without a ton of money,” he says. “In a way, we’re a reflection of the city and I think people appreciate it.”
Still, Lynch is adamant that if they won the lottery, The Park Players would retain their “minimalist” approach, saying that it gives them “street cred” and adds a level of authenticity to their performances.
They’ve done standard community theater fare like Guys and Dolls and Our Town. But they’ve also specialized in putting on thought-provoking productions like The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of a gay student in Wyoming.
When it came time for the group to select their fall play, the board of directors wanted to deliver something that was “real.” But this time, it wasn’t just about street cred; it was to raise awareness about police violence in America.
After choosing Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, which chronicles citizens’ reactions during the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, the Park Players called local acting veteran Lynch Travis to fill the role as director.
The Tony-nominated production was initially performed in Los Angeles by writer Anna Deavere Smith, but as a one-woman show. Travis made The Park Players’ rendition unique by casting each of the 37 characters.
“The play is certainly relevant politically, looking at themes like police brutality and the community’s response to it,” Travis says. “One of my favorite things about this play is that it’s the reactions of average people to what was going on, so they don’t have pre-prepared or politically correct answers to her questions.”
Travis adds that he’s counting on his cast to deliver the “raw honesty” so central to the play’s original performance, and thinks the political parallels will help inspire and engage audience and cast members alike. Similar to the original rendition, Travis’ depiction of Twilight won’t be matching actors with the age, race, gender, or ethnicity of the characters they’re tasked with portraying. He’s hoping this will make audiences stop and think.
“I think this technique will allow the messages to get to the audience, and they’ll be able to get past things like, ‘Oh, he’s just saying that because he’s black,’ or whatever the case may be,” he says. “It also lends itself to theater and allows everyone to use have a deeper freedom and range, so they really have to use a different skillset.”
Travis believes Twilight is different than what the Players have done in the past, but believes it speaks to the members of the North Rosedale Park and metro Detroit communities.
“There’s levity and universal appeal because this play speaks to the human condition,” he says. “It’s a very unique type of theater because these monologues are verbatim, but people will still be entertained and engaged.”
The Park Players know performing Twilight isn’t the answer to solving social problems, but Travis hopes it will spark a meaningful discussion.
In fact, the producer Lynch is organizing a “talk-back” after each performance, where characters will respond to audience questions. He says this is an important step in both starting and continuing what he hopes to be a dialogue on race relations and social justice issues.
The Park Players have also partnered with the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and will be donating a portion of their ticket sales to the group.
“Theater sometimes needs to get serious and do something,” Lynch says. “I feel like as a society people are ready. We were kind of stuck in this period of apathy and burnout in the past 20 years and we’re finally ready for that to end.”
Performances will be the weekends of Nov. 13 and 20 at the North Rosedale Park Community House. Show times and ticket information can be found at parkplayers.wordpress.com.