JWR Articles: Live Event - Palmer Park (Director: Ron O.J. Parson) - July 17, 2008
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Palmer Park

3.5 3.5

Dreaming in black-and-white

Slipping away from the world of thoughtful director Ron OJ Parson’s vision of Palmer Park, Mother Nature decided to weigh in with her own take on the racially charged proceedings.

A candescent full-moon shed its lustre on sleepy Albert Street only to be gradually blotted out by the silent arrival of an imposing black cloud. Seconds later, an even more beautiful tableau filled the sky—temporarily, the power of black over white adorned the heavens with the perfect metaphor to represent Joanna McClelland Glass’ new play.

Self described as “a lament to the failure of integration in the United States,” the historical-whimsical drama (a collage of late ‘60s music and images appealed to the majority of the white-bread crowd that were content to let their guilt—assumed or real—do the walking at the frequent purposely uncomfortable moments and be assuaged by equally aged jokes that wouldn’t draw a snicker if told as a stand-up routine) zeros in on a particularly ugly period in Detroit’s violent past.

Integration-by-formula (65%/35% favouring the founding fathers is the preferred ideal ratio to ensure this upscale city neighbourhood will lure enough whites to keep a healthy majority alongside their “made it” black brethren and reverse that massive exodus after the bloody riots of 1967) is the cure. Housing values have fallen in a manner not seen until the current mortgage-backed securities debacle.

The underlying issue of money is brought into the story but needs a fuller treatment if Glass’ explanation of the events can not only be believed but, perhaps, used as a call to action.

Dr. Martin Townsend (Dan Chameroy—very comfortable in the role of the professor with a conscience) and Iowan bride Kate (a few corncobs more of naïveté could move Kelli Fox’s portrayal into the exceptional column)—post-riot newcomers—can’t believe“ the best house I’ll ever live in” can be theirs for just $3,000 down. Next door are Dr. Fletcher Hazelton (Nigel Shawn Williams devours the part with convincing passion and a campy impression of Flip Wilson’s Geraldine), a finally-successful paediatrician and his upwardly-mobile wife Linda (delivered with class by Yanna McIntosh). Like The Jeffersons of the era, this black couple have “moved on up,” speak passable French, know a “Reubens from a Rembrandt” and stock their bar with expensive champagne (Martin’s pronunciation is a running gag) and single-malt scotch.

After an awkward (and hilarious—the “What-should-we-bring-them-for-dinner?” joke is a hoot) move-in day meeting, the couples band together with realtor/resident Sol Rifkin (Brad Rudy who displays great comedic sense and is appropriately dour in his shadowy—literally, there are many fine visual effects—rendition of school board chair Dr. Aaron Meyer) and black lawyer/stay-at-home mom Ron (Kevin Hanchard—equally compelling as blue collar journeyman worker/father Alvin Wilkinson) and Alice (Lesley Ewen—also superb as the unbending school principal, Mrs. Percy) and work the phones in order to maintain the visible minority balance as new residents snap up the bargain-priced housing.

Problem is, with 250,000 less citizens to support the education levy (fleeing to the suburbs eroded the municipal tax base in an unprecedented manner) the school board is suddenly strapped for funds. The Palmer Park solution is to form a fund-raising committee and canvas their neighbours to amass the wherewithal to purchase such frills as books, paper and pens. Money saved on the mortgage finds a different home to maintain.

Just blocks away, but miles in terms of economic position, classroom overcrowding has grown to crisis proportions in the community whose children struggle to hear, much less learn the basics at Bagley Elementary School. Soon, neighbourhood envy rears its dangerous head.

Two solutions are put to the school board: bus in 130 students to Palmer Park or find the resources to deliver five portables to Bagley (the extra requirements for teaching staff remain silent).

Essentially, this scenario provides Glass with a classic black haves vs. black have-nots standoff, letting her feed lines to her beleaguered characters that aptly prove her thesis. The climactic scenes are powerful in their own way, but the heartfelt bemoaning that “We’ve lost our Camelot” (referring to the assassination of JFK) casts another shadow over both the American dream and the root of social unrest.

Like health-care fundraising today (“I love cancer, I won the dream-home lottery!”), governments are content to let the “extras” for education and health come from involuntary taxation (rhymes with donation) of those most likely to need the services (and the army of fund-raising professionals required to keep the cash flowing). And why not? It works. Imagine asking the military or politicians to fundraise for their “extras” instead of relying on direct taxation.

The colour of skin is a false-front barrier to civility that masks the common denominator of powerlessness and poverty that causes more riots than simple racial divides. Palmer Park scratches the surface but would benefit from deeper analysis of the facts. JWR

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