Fall theater season explores race, comedy and wise advice

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
"Channel Cat," opening Nov. 7 at Detroit Repertory Theatre, stars Lynch Travis, Kayla Von and Ryan Carlson.

Fraught issues of race and privilege dominate what local independent and community theaters have on stage this fall, perhaps a reflection of where America finds itself on the cusp of the coming decade. 

But take heart -- while serious social issues are on the agenda, most of the playwrights approach their subjects with humor as well as social realism. 

However if big topics aren't your cup of tea, there's lighter fare available -- including a revival of "Cabaret," a world premiere about Sherlock Holmes, and a look at the life of an advice columnist. 

Detroit Repertory Theatre, Detroit  / (313) 868-1347

Running Nov. 7-Dec. 29, "Channel Cat" at the Detroit Rep looks at black-white issues and inter-generational conflict through the lens of a barbecue joint in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, one of the first American towns founded by freed slaves. 

"The barbecue joint is owned by an African-American man who runs it with his 22-year-old daughter, the first in the family to graduate from college," said Leah Smith, the theater's associate artistic director and managing director. 

"Her politics are more 'woke' than her father's," she added, "and his best friend is the local sheriff, who happens to be white. The daughter's not happy about that. So one evening late at night, the sheriff shows up, tensions rise, and secrets are revealed."

While the playwright Josph Zettelmaier, who lives in the Detroit area, tackles dark subject matter, he does it with writing that's "fall-off-your-chair funny," Smith said.

The Rep's next production opening Jan. 9 will be "The Puppeteer," which takes a look at generations of African-American women and identity in one family from the 1920s to the present, with the same actress playing each role generation to generation. 

Theatre Nova, Ann Arbor / (734) 635-8450

"Admissions" at Theatre Nova in downtown Ann Arbor tracks somewhat similar territory, albeit with a distinctly different twist. The white family at the heart of this drama runs a prep school, and their son and his buddy are both applying for early admission at Yale. 

"Admissions" at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova features Joe Bailey (left), Diane Hill and Jeremy Kucharek.

"But his best friend," said David Wolber, co-producing artistic director, "is of mixed race and gets into Yale on early admission. The son does not," and then wrestles with his sharply conflicted feelings. 

"Admissions" runs through Oct. 13. 

Following that will be "Follies in Concert," Nov. 7-17, a fundraiser which Wolber describes as "more of a staged concert production" than a fully realized stage show. "It's not a brand new work," which this theater specializes in, he added, "but it's something we've been wanting to do."  

Detroit Public Theatre, Detroit / (313) 576-5111

The Detroit Public Theatre, located in the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, is mounting the third play in Dominique Morisseau's Detroit series, "Paradise Blue" through Nov. 3. 

Here Morisseau, who grew up in Detroit but lives in Los Angeles, looks at the plight of one owner of a Paradise Valley jazz club, which along with Black Bottom is about to be leveled to make way for I-75 and urban "renewal" projects. 

"It's an intimate, personal story with huge cultural and social ramifications," said Sarah Winkler, DPT co-producing artistic director. "It's not the same as the gentrification going on now in Detroit, but is nonetheless so relevant to today."

Running Nov. 14-Dec. 8 will be "Temples of Lung and Air" by Kane Smego -- a solo piece in which the playwright, who had a white mother and black step-father, journeys through his childhood and race in America.

Purple Rose Theatre, Chelsea / (734) 433-7673

"Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé" is the second of David McGregor's trilogy about the famed British detective, and runs through Dec. 21. 

Tom Whalen in "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé" at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre.

This world premiere takes place on the eve of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and both the playboy Prince of Wales and Auguste Escoffier, one of the world's great chefs, are in the grave danger, and seek Holmes' help. 

The play's director, Michelle Mountain, says that McGregor, a local playwright who's a resident artist at Purple Rose, has a particular gift for comedy. "He's so smart and witty," she said. "He's just fun."

Following "Fallen Soufflé" will be "Roadsigns," a world premiere by Jeff Daniels that will be up Jan. 16-Mar. 14. 

The Ringwald, Ferndale / 248-545-5545

"Tiny Beautiful Things," running Oct. 11-Nov. 4, is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, and grapples with the author's experience writing an advice column under the pseudonym Sugar.

The book was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame, and opened at New York's Public Theater in 2016. 

"It's a lovely show and script," said Joe Bailey, The Ringwald's artistic director. "It's very slice-of-life -- full of empathy and beautiful language that gives you the 'feels,' as the kids say."

Joel Mitchell (left) and Kelly Komlen in "Tiny Beautiful Things" at The Ringwald in Ferndale.

From Nov. 22-Dec. 16, the theater will mount "A Very Golden Girls Christmas" by Dyan Bailey, no relation to the theater's artistic director, and Christopher Kamm.

And does it have anything to do with the TV show of the same name? "It sure does," said Bailey. "It's a very Christmas parody, and mostly a comedy -- decidedly so."

Other productions around town

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre (248-788-2900), in its new home in Walled Lake, is producing "Cabaret" Oct. 11-Nov. 3, the classic story of love, loss and social decline in Nazi Germany. Planet Ant (313-365-4948) in Hamtramck has "As They Like It," a fresh take on Shakespeare that will be up through Oct. 10-26. And Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" is at Dexter's Encore Musical Theatre (734-268-6200) through Oct. 13. 


(313) 222-6021