Detroit, not the play but the city, has been much on my mind of late. My Dad first came there in 1910 to go to work, either for Oldsmobile or Studebaker, as a racecar driver and salesman. Born in St. Joseph, MO, in 1891 (only nine years after Frank Ford had whacked Jesse James in that fair city, he was raised in Canada until he was 18 or 19. At the time, to thousands of out-of-work Canadians, Detroit must have been a shining lure, a city of hope and promise.
Since Dad had never spoken much of his early years, I’ve recently been working hard to piece his life together. Back in August, I’d traveled as far as Chicago to attend the Dramatists’ Guild conference. So I decided I’d extend the trip and drop in on the now bankrupt Detroit, just 103 years after Dad’s first arrival there. For homework, I also read Charlie Duff’s gripping book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, which suggests that the city is the canary in the mine that is America. I took a wonderfully upbeat tour of the city on my first day there. While it’s still possible to find some of the positive spirit that must have marked the city in 1910, there’s no question that it has become a city of despair. It is a city whose population has fallen from almost two million to only 700,000, just in the last 25 years or so.
Other American cities are not far behind: Populations, and with them their tax bases, are fleeing the cities. Jobs are being terminated. Opportunities are next to nil. Homes are being repossessed and razed, or torched. Savings are depleted. Basic services have been slashed. Suburban neighborhoods are collapsing. Debts are coming due. And for far too many, our schools offer little hope for escape.
No play that I have seen in recent years better captures the totality of what has been wrought on the middle class and urban/suburban American life than does Detroit, by Lisa D’Amour. In Chicago, I had picked up a script at the Steppenwolf Theatre, where the play had originated. And a week ago, we caught up with it on its closing day at Washington’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre. It’s a gutsy little 38-year-old theatre that has always prided itself on doing creative new work. This was a magnificent production, with typically fine direction, acting and design (despite the resulting lack of leg room). I’m very grateful to new friends who invited us to join them.
Rather than tackle head-on the now worldwide problems of relocating and re-classing entire populations of people, the playwright focuses on two couples, neighbors in a crumbling suburb outside a crumbling American city. She is careful to claim in her script that Detroit, however apt a title, is meant to be a metaphor for contemporary America at large. And the four main characters are recognizable stand-ins for the audience. Mary and Ben try to cling to their middle class traditions after Ben has lost his job as a bank loan officer. They’ve invited their mysterious new next-door neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, to a barbeque, where carefully guarded self-delusions are soon revealed and inhibitions discarded. The non-stop action ranges from hilarious talk of personal relationships, loss of mobility, and questions of what’s to come, to a full-scale bacchanalia and conflagration.
Spoiler alert here, but I can’t help myself. At the climax of the play is the most brilliantly designed “fire” I’ve ever seen on a stage, which seemingly torches the entire set, all done with sound and light. And while the play is much too subtle to get into politics overtly, it’s hard to miss the “Washington” allusion when in the final scene Mary says to Kenny’s newly arrived uncle, “They were a nice couple. We really liked them.” The uncle’s stunned response: They burned your f***ing house down.” [n.b.: Don’t hold me to the exact quote.] Well, strictly speaking, it might not have been an allusion, since at the time the play was written, the U.S. congress was not quite yet fully engaged in the process of dismantling people’s homes and lives.
The uncle’s summary speech does struggle to end the play on a vaguely optimistic note. Thankfully in any bleak situation there is always the possibility of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. That’s true even in Detroit, not the play but the city. The parks and the riverfront are being beautifully redeveloped. Architects are flocking in to design an aesthetic and technological marvel, a beautiful modern city, built on the ashes of the old. Land developers are snapping up bargains. Attention is being paid to jobs, art and the environment. All by himself, Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, has moved all his operations into the city hub, where he has bought 26 buildings, including some landmark skyscrapers, all up for refurbishment, and is providing thousands of jobs to accomplish it all. The light is there, but so is the darkness of the tunnel, which the play Detroit documents so vividly.
Of course, Americans are not alone in facing their rapidly closing doors. Joan and I are currently in London, where BBC, Sky, and other news programs provide a modicum of real news along with their pablum. It’s more abundantly clear than ever that America’s problems are reflected in the U.K., Europe, and the rest of the world. We are not alone – not that that should provide us with any degree of comfort. The bogeyman of immigration is even more threatening here in the U.K. than it is at home, merely substituting middle-easterners of all persuasions (read “blacks and muslims”) for Hispanics. The conflicts between providing and protecting democratic freedoms are a worldwide dilemma. So is the very apparent self-destruction we are all undertaking by destroying our earth’s viability in the name of illusory economic prosperity. The Brits and Europeans seem far more conscious of this than we are, but that doesn’t mean they’ll act on it any more aggressively. Since it was invented, money talks, and … after all, human beings seem to have gotten this far all right based on our unique ability to delude ourselves – never more apparent than in the current American congress.
Okay, now I’m ranting. I’ll stop now. If you can find it playing anywhere, go see Detroit. You’ll get the picture.