Monday, August 18, 2008

Palmer Park "Spell-Binding"

Sharon Malvern (the Stratford Beacon-Herald) reviews Palmer Park:

"If you remember the late '60s you'll enjoy Palmer Park for the nostalgia it evokes. If you are too young for the memories, you'll get a history lesson you won't forget. And in both cases, you'll be intensely moved by a spell-binding drama that depicts the complexities of racial integration.

"The world premiere of Palmer Park gives us a poignant glimpse into events of just 40 years ago, revisiting Detroit just after the violent race riots of 1967 that destroyed much of the city. Although the play deals with social and racial issues that are still problematic, it is also a fascinating, humorous and ultimately painful portrayal of idealistic neighbours attempting to create a better world for their children.

"In 1968, Palmer Park was an upper-middle-class Detroit neighbourhood made up of young, white (65 per cent) and black (35 per cent) families who were working hard to maintain racial diversity both in real estate and in the community school, Hampton Elementary. They were very aware of the 'white flight' when nearly 300,000 names left the Detroit phone book in the six months following the race riots. The result was bargain-basement prices for the beautiful homes of Palmer Park but financial disaster for the Detroit school system which is funded by property taxes. And they also knew the real estate mantra: 'Integration is what occurs between the first black moving in and the last white moving out.'

"The play begins when a young white couple, Martin and Kate Townsend, buy a house in Palmer Park next door to a young black couple, Fletch and Linda Hazelton. Martin is a professor of physics at Wayne State; Fletch is a pediatrician. The newcomers are soon caught up in their neighbours' endeavours to sustain the racial diversity of their community. They put their 'feet on the street,' knocking on doors to request financial donations to buy much-needed supplies for the school. And they also use their professional connections to persuade white people to buy houses in Palmer Park.

"For a while, the Palmer Park parents succeed. But the parents of black children at a severely overcrowded nearby school resent the financial advantages that parents have brought to Hampton Elementary. They want their children to have a decent education too. When they threaten to send 130 black children to the school, the racial balance is at risk, and so are the allegiances and values of Palmer Park. The white people are surprised by the class and cultural differences of the black community that come to the forefront. Finally, the idealistic dream is shattered.

"'Palmer Park is a lament for the failure of integration in the United States. It is also an examination of the plight of upper-middle-class African Americans," states Canadian-born playwright Joanna McClelland Glass in the program notes.

"Palmer Park is based on her personal experience, between 1968 and 1974, when she lived in an integrated neighbourhood in the University District of Detroit, alongside Palmer Park. She calls that experience 'haunting,' because she and her neighbours pursued their ideals, though naive, with tenacity and ardour, but ultimately they failed.

"The setting, 1968-1972 in Detroit, is brilliantly detailed by the use of a huge screen as backdrop, with a montage of visuals: the houses in Palmer Park, the streets of Detroit, singers, television stars like Flip Wilson from the popular comedy show, Laugh-In, news clips of political figures like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (both of whom were assassinated in 1968), logos and more. The soundtrack was a musical journey into the era.

"Designer Jessica Poirier Chang deserves credit for the minimal yet effective stage furnishings and props.

"The costumes, designed by Katherine Lubienski, are authentic outfits from the '60s, colourful and appropriate for the characters.

"Director Ron O.J. Parson skilfully captured the turbulence of the times, the idealism of the people and the cross-racial friendships with a first-rate cast. The lead actors were outstanding. Dan Chameroy's speech to the Detroit school board was impassioned and inspiring, and Nigel Shawn Williams depicted the dilemma of the black American with sensitivity and anguish."

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