January 21, 2009 at 1:00 am

James David Dickson: Commentary

'Kwame a River': Detroit gets last laugh on ex-mayor

"This should've been the good times/

Detroit on the road/

Downtown resurgence, and the Super Bowl/

All cylinders firing, except for one playa/

I'm talkin' 'bout Kwame, our gangsta mayor"

This is the stuff Greek tragedies are made of.

Hometown boy, prepped for the throne since birth, is ushered into high office on the promise of change and offering the hope of a New Day.

But the young man was in office less than a year when it all began to unravel after urban legend spread that the boy mayor hosted a stripper party at the city-owned Manoogian Mansion, and the scrutiny and investigations that followed.

Who knew that the beginning and the beginning of the end would run so closely together? Indeed, before long, Detroit's supposed New Day began to look a lot like its bad, old days.

And what does a New Day look like, anyway, if it doesn't involve dislodging the mayor's hand from the city's cookie jar? If the rules apply to everyone but the people making them, and the mayor lives like a king even as one in every three Detroit residents lives below the poverty line?

Detroit's been makin'/

The national news/

And this time it's for city abuse

Surely, Marc Warzecha thought, as he watched the Kilpatrick scandal unfold from Los Angeles, someone's going to run wild with this. Warzecha had been making a living doing political satire in Los Angeles since moving west in 2000. But Central Casting couldn't have dreamed up better fodder than Detroit's so-called gangsta mayor. True stories, as the saying goes, are oftentimes the best stories. So with the Kilpatrick scandal.

As the months passed, and the depth of the scandal grew, with nary a writer coming to market to exploit the absurdity of it all, Warzecha started putting pen to paper. What resulted was a 75-minute, one-act play titled "Kwame a River: Chronicles of Detroit's Hip-Hop Mayor," which has opened to positive press at Second City Detroit in Novi.

Warzecha is a product of Second City's training program, learning stagecraft in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles before pitching his idea to Second City producers. Warzecha's ties with the company, along with his familiarity with the Detroit political scene beyond Mayor Kilpatrick, helped tremendously as the Dearborn Heights native sought a home for his idea.

"I had a pretty long history with the people at Second City Detroit," Warzecha recalls. "I wrote a few sample sketches, they liked them, then I wrote the rest." But just because Kilpatrick's antics made national news, don't expect the play to go national.

Part of what attracted Warzecha to doing the satire in Detroit is the imbalance between the beating the Motor City takes in the national news, as compared to the paucity of Detroit-based humor.

"There's just not a lot of humor that's specific to this region," said Warzecha. "When a national comedy act comes into town, they'll tell a Detroit Lions joke or two, then they're right into their stock material.

"I wrote 'Kwame a River' with the intent of giving Detroiters the opportunity to laugh about their problems, but also to laugh at themselves," he said. "There's a lot of inside jokes and hometown heroes in there for the hometown audience. I'm not really sure how that would translate in a place like Chicago or even farther out."

Newscaster Carmen Harlan, Attorney General Mike Cox, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Kilpatrick nemesis and WXYZ reporter Steve Wilson are depicted in the play, along with cameos from former mayors Dennis Archer and the ghost of Coleman Young.

"This is a man who had more than ample opportunity to do right by Detroit," said Warzecha, noting that Detroiters supported Kilpatrick during and after the extent of his scandals were revealed. "Hopefully in coming to see 'Kwame a River' people will have a chance to get in one last laugh and move on from it."

After all, what would a Greek tragedy be without catharsis?

But if there's one flaw in the production, it's that to laugh at Kilpatrick's antics is, fundamentally, to long for them. Connell Brown Jr., of Detroit, masterfully, if sympathetically, portrays Kilpatrick's missteps as par for the course for the larger-than-life ex-mayor who was the product of a culture where the rules simply never applied.

The Kwame Kilpatrick of Second City Detroit, sometimes more convincingly than the Kilpatrick who occupied the Mayor's Office for seven years, strikes the figure of a talented and charming man who simply lets his thirst for the good life get the best of him. Not altogether unlike what many of us might do, given the power and the opportunity.

Of course, it's all fun and games until one man's sexual escapades cost his city $8.5 million and who knows how many more millions in business investment and residential flight. Then it's tragic.

The show runs through March 22, with show times at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and at 7 and 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

So come, smoke a cigar and have a laugh at the former mayor's expense. But whatever you do, don't let yourself miss him. We don't want anyone to ever be able to say that we set this man up for a comeback.

You can reach James David Dickson at (313) 222-2299 or jddickson@detnews.com">jddickson@detnews.com.