Saturday, August 9, 2008

Playwright: Joanna McClelland Glass

An interview with Joanna McClelland Glass from Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star:

"If Canadian playwrights ever achieve mythological status, there's one piece of casting that's already a done deal.

"Joanna McClelland Glass would have to play Athena.

"It's not just the cool elegance that this 71-year-old radiates that makes her right for the role, but the concern with serving wisdom and justice that she shares with her ancient Greek counterpart.

"Palmer Park, now in previews at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival prior to its opening next Saturday, is almost the quintessential Glass play in that it contains many of the features that have marked her work over the years.

"In the first place, it's based on historical fact: There is a Palmer Park in suburban Detroit and after the deadly 'black day in July' race riot of 1967, it was one of the few parts of the city where blacks and whites still tried to live together in harmony.

"It's also about an actual chapter in Glass's life.

"'I first came to Palmer Park in August of 1968,' she recalls now, sitting in the living room of her house in Stratford where she has been carefully supervising its restoration for the past year.

"'The city was still a shambles, even a year after the riots. It's hard to be diplomatic about Detroit. It's a very sad city. I find it second only to New Orleans in its sadness.'

"Glass is not speaking just from a subjective point of view.

"Before the 1967 riot, the city's population was nearly 2 million. In the six months following it, as Glass puts it 'the phone book lost nearly 300,000 names.'

"Today the city is home to 900,000 people.

"'I guess it all started with Henry Ford and his automobile,' says Glass.

"'He made the city prosperous, but he also planted the seeds of its future strife when he brought thousands of people up from the deep South to work on his assembly lines for $5 a day.'

"By the time the 1960s arrived, most Detroit blacks had trouble finding affordable housing and many were the subject of large-scale police brutality.

"Early on Sunday morning, July 23, 1967, a police raid on a 'blind pig' or after-hours speakeasy in the city's West Side served as the fuse that exploded a bomb of racial tension that had been building for decades.

"Before the violence was over, five days later, 43 people were dead and 2,000 buildings were burned down.

"That was the prelude to the situation Glass entered a year later.

"'The educational system in the States is built on property taxes,' explains Glass, 'but when so many white people moved away following the riots, the Detroit school system was in dire straits.'

"But the people of both races who chose to live in Palmer Park didn't want to see their local elementary school closed, or gutted, or overcrowded with inappropriate busing.

"'There is a cynical truism,' observes Glass, 'that integration in America is what happens between the first black moving in and the last white moving out. It usually takes two to four years.'

"To tell the story of what Glass saw happen, she creates two couples who live next door to each other – one black, one white.

"Like everyone in the neighbourhood, they're middle or upper middle class: teachers, doctors, professional people.

"'The character Kelli Fox plays is based on me,' volunteers Glass, 'but her husband, played by Dan Chameroy, is entirely different from my husband.'

"Glass is equally concerned about the black couple, Fletch and Linda Hazelton, played by Nigel Shawn Williams and Yanna McIntosh.

"'It's a little delicate to have a white lady writing about it,' allows Glass, picking her words carefully, 'but there hasn't been a lot written about the black middle class, the ones who did everything you were supposed to do to be accepted by the white community in those days, only to find the wall was still up.'

"But not in Palmer Park, at least not for a while. The residents convince everyone that an integrated neighbourhood can be a reality and raise money to keep their local school supplied and open.

"'At that point in time,' recalls Glass, 'the broke-down Detroit school system was using busing as its answer to everything.

"'They were taking kids who came from homes where there was one toilet down the hall for five families and sending them to schools in upper class suburbs where the recess conversation would be, Oh, are you going to Bermuda for Christmas?'

"And in a way, that's what finally did in Palmer Park. The school board sent 130 black children from an overcrowded school in an impoverished neighbourhood to the environment the parents had worked so hard to maintain.

"'It marked the beginning of the end,' sighs Glass.

"'By my daughter's last year in school, she was one of four white children in her class. Today, Palmer Park is only 10 per cent white and that's mainly old people who just don't want to leave.'

"The scars of the past obviously cause Glass great pain still, so why would she want to reopen wounds after 40 years?

"'Because segregation has seeped back into the American schools even worse than it was back in the 1950s. And the worst part is that it seems like there's hardly anybody even trying.'

"In a year when America might elect its first black president, Glass is wise to ask us to look at our past in an attempt to find an answer for our present."

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