Brooke Berman's play '1300 Lafayette East' will be staged at Plowshares Theatre by artistic director Gary Anderson, left, in March. It will debut later this month at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre. (Brooke Berman)
It’s fitting that Brooke Berman’s mother’s favorite home — the high-rise apartments at 1300 Lafayette East in downtown Detroit — is the centerpiece of her new play, now in rehearsal for its premiere here later this month.
After all, home was also the spine of Brooke’s 2010 celebrated memoir “No Place Like Home” (Random House) about living in 39 apartments in 20 years in New York City, which won her many accolades, including comparisons to Lena Dunham, which she took as a compliment. (“There’s a wave of women in my life who feel like we were the Hannah Horvaths of our day,” says the Huntington Woods native.)
And too, as the only child of Marilyn Berman (her father, Harvey Berman, died when Brooke was age 9), their “stormy but very loving” relationship was complicated by an overriding sense of home and hearth.
“My mother felt that one of the great problems in her own life was that she was afraid to leave home and it was important to her to raise me to be independent,” Brooke said in a phone interview from her grandmother’s apartment at the Claymoor in Southfield. (Weather precluded the Queens, N.Y., and former Los Angeles resident from venturing out in her rental car.)
“But then when I did, I don’t think she was quite prepared emotionally for when I left. She was caught in a difficult place of wanting me to fly but ... she was dismayed with me that I had.”
Marilyn Berman, who was a successful businesswoman in public relations both for Michigan Opera Theater and the fashion industry, died in 2007 from aggressive diabetes. She was only 65 years old.
From 2000 to 2007, Marilyn spent a great deal of time in and out of hospitals. “Therewas a lot of time to reflect and we had some really amazing conversations,” Brooke remembers.
Part of Detroit's white flight
With notebook in hand, Brooke prodded her mother to tell the stories of when she lived as a newlywed in the historic high-rise apartments with its majestic views during the city’s vibrant heyday. “She described it as magical and wonderful place,” Brooke says. “One day she’d be in the elevator with Diana Ross, the next she’d run into one of the singers from the Temptations.”
The magic ended one summer night in 1967. . From her high-rise window, Marilyn watched as the city burned.
The next year, pregnant with Brooke, the family moved to Huntington Woods. “My mother was incredibly proud of being a Detroiter, and yet she was part of the white flight that deserted the city.”
White/black friendship chornicled
Brooke is 44 now. The mother of 3-year-old Benjamin is married to Gordon Haber, a writer. “1300 E. Lafayette” is the latest in nearly a dozen of Brooke’s plays that have been produced across the U.S. at theaters like Steppenwolf in Chicago and The Second Stage in New York.
The play takes place in the gleaming lobby of the high rise and centers on the relationship between a young Jewish housewife, who feels stranded in her marriage, and a glamorous and aspiring Motown singer Reena Walker, who has great taste in everything but men.
“I wanted to focus on what these two women could be to one another and what they could not be to one another because of history and because what it is about to happen with riots. It looks at what the rules were, both spoken and unspoken.”
Back then, white women, in particular, could be quite naive about racism. “I think the white woman could pick and choose to see things about the world in which she lived,” Brooke says. “For, my mother, at least, all she talked about was how wonderful it was to live in that building all together with Diana Ross. How they were all one family and they were all equal. I don’t know when she really understood at a vitriol level what it felt like to walk though the world of a Diana Ross.”
Brooke hopes the take away is: “If these two women can make their friendship work, maybe larger things in the world can also change.”
When asked how she felt about her mother not being able to share in her daughter’s success, Berman didn’t skip a beat.
“I feel she’s watching everything from the other side,” she said. No doubt giving a standing ovation, too.