'The Puppeteer' has world premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre
At heart, Desireé York's new play "The Puppeteer" yearns for the sort of hopefulness the Obama years embodied -- that one way or another, we can all reach across the racial chasm and find mutual understanding.
The play, which tracks five generations of African-American mothers and daughters from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance to present day, has its world premiere Thursday at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. The show runs through March 15.
"My goal," said the 42-year-old playwright, reached at her home south of Los Angeles, "is to show that ultimately we're all in this together."
That sentiment is embodied in the title itself, drawn from a line in Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
Confronted by a white secretary who repeatedly blocked her efforts to get a job interview, the young Angelou swallowed her fury and took the long view, later writing, "I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer."
York, who's interested in theater that advances social change, was struck by the passage. "We're all the victims of racism and a patriarchal society," she said.
"The Puppeteer" was first tested two years ago with one performance at the Dayton Playhouse's FutureFest, a festival dedicated to new and unproduced plays. The online Dayton Most Metro named "The Puppeteer" the best new work of the city's entire 2017-2018 season.
"That was amazing," York said, "considering it only had one showing. And I was so welcomed and embraced by the Dayton African-American community," she added. "I was so grateful they encouraged me to go on with the piece. It was very humbling."
That support was both humbling and affirming for a white playwright who's written a work about black women. In some settings, particularly universities, York might get dismissed as having trafficked in "cultural appropriation," reflecting a political judgment that white people cannot create authentic African-American characters or anyone, for that matter, who's not white.
"I'm not trying to defend myself or take sides," York said. "All I can speak to is my own personal experience. This is a personal, intimate story about relationships, and the things we pass on to our children."
Taken to its extreme, of course, the argument behind "cultural appropriation" suggests men can only write about men, and only African-Americans can accurately represent the black experience in the United States.
"I think," said Casaundra Freeman, the play's African-American director, "there's room for people to just tell human stories. If I said to Desireé, 'Hey - this doesn't ring true to my lived experience as an African-American woman,' she'd change it."
Playing the succession of mothers and daughters, all named Constance, is Detroiter Indigo Colbert.
"She's phenomenal," said Freeman. "I saw her in a production of Lynn Nottage's 'Ruined' and stalked her. She just had a small role, and her character was shy and soft-spoken. But I couldn't keep my eyes off her. I told her, 'One day I want to work with you.'"
Filling out the cast are Aaron Kottke, Jayne McLendon, and Connie Cowper -- all of whom, like Colbert, play multiple roles.
Freeman says over the course of the play's narrative arc, the characters learn acceptance, love and forgiveness, and the importance of one's roots.
Which is all fine and good. But does "The Puppeteer" have a happy ending?
"You'll have to be the judge of that," said York with a laugh.
Through March 15
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodward Wilson, Detroit
8:30 p.m. Thurs.-Fri; 3 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Sat; 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sun.