Plowshares Theatre Company, Michigan's only professional African-American theatre company, presents the world premiere of Continued Warm, by Detroit playwright Jeffry Chastang, July 12-Aug. 5 in Dearborn, MI.
The Detroit troupe, led by artistic director Gary Anderson, is in residence at the Anderson Center Theater in Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn. The company's goal is a permanent theatre in the city of Detroit.
Walter Dallas directs Chastang's play, set in Detroit during the hot summer of 1943. According to production notes, "Between the overcrowded conditions most black Detroiters lived under and the high temperatures, the tenants of a boardinghouse in Black Bottom fight for survival and dignity on the day of the infamous Belle Isle Riot."
Previews play July 12-13 and opening is set for July 14. It has only been recently that Detroit's professional Equity theatres have been addressing local issues and identity (Killing Times at Meadow Brook Theatre, for example, involving Jack Kevorkian-style assisted suicides, and MBT's Gift of Glory, about Edsel Ford and Diego Rivera). The premiere of Continued Warm coincides with the 300th anniversary of the founding of Detroit. The city celebrates the tricentennial throughout the year, but especially in July.
According to Plowshares press notes, "On a hot and humid Sunday, June 20, 1943 about 100,000 people packed themselves onto Belle Isle [the bucolic island in the middle of the Detroit River]. Brawls between Blacks and whites broke out all over because of the heat and the overcrowding. No one knows for sure what set off the riot but a rumor spread through the clubs and bars of Paradise Valley that a group of white sailors had thrown a Black woman and her child off the Belle Isle Bridge. By midnight in Black Bottom, Detroit's primary African American neighborhood, rioters had destroyed white-owned businesses up and down Hastings Street. Over the next two days whites flooded into downtown and repeatedly pulled blacks from city buses and out of their cars to beat them fiercely. By the time the Federal troops and police finally reestablished order, the official death toll was 25 blacks and nine whites. Injuries totaled into the hundreds, and nearly 2,000 persons were arrested. The Belle Isle Riot was defined as one of the worst civil disturbances in the United States since the Civil War." The seeds of postwar geographic separation of the white and black communities in metro Detroit are said to be in the 1943 riots.
Playwright Jeffry L. Chastang is best known in Detroit as an actor. He has appeared in many Plowshares productions, including A Soldier's Play, Jitney, Pill Hill, The Last Season and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. As a playwright, he has written two one-act plays, Infrared and Red Boy Blues. His first full-length play, Full Circle, won the 1998 Best of Festival award at Plowshares' New Voices Play Festival. The script also won the prestigious Roger L. Stevens Playwriting Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Full Circle also received its world premiere as part of Plowshares' 2000 season.
The cast for Continued Warm includes Lynch Travis as the Batte, Roosevelt Johnson as Alfred, Jill Chenault as Jo May, Sheila Alyce Slaughter as Julia, Antonio Ramirez as Monk, Iris Farrugia as Goodie, Rhonda English as Miss Lee Anna and James Bowen as Buster.
Director Walter Dallas assumed the artistic leadership of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre in 1992. He won national recognition and several awards for his work Off-Broadway and regionally at such theatres as the Negro Ensemble Company, American Place, Yale Rep, Crossroads and Baltimore's Center Stage where he was a Director Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts. At Chicago's Goodman Theatre he directed the critically acclaimed world premiere of August Wilson's Seven Guitars, named one of the Top Ten Best Theatre Events of 1995 by Time Magazine and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He helmed world premieres of works by James Baldwin, Leslie Lee, Sam Kelley, Kia Corthron, Ntozake Shange, Samm-Art Williams, Clarice Taylor, Thulani Davis and others. He premiered John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler at the McCarter Theatre.
Continued Warm designers are Gary Decker (set), Lanny Birdsell (costumes) and Ronald Burns (lights).
Anderson Center Theater is in Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, 20900 Oakwood Blvd near the IMAX theatre. Tickets range $10-$20, with student, group and senior discounts available. For information, call (313) 872-0279 between 10 AM-6 PM.
— By Kenneth Jones