A story of transitions: Live theater returns to Chelsea's Purple Rose with 'Under Ceege'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Read what you will about the city of Inkster and its economic woes or crime problems  but playwright Jeffry Chastang, who grew up there, sees a different Inkster.

He sees a city that felt like home, a city with a unique and complicated history that dates back to Detroit's housing shortage after World War I and policies that restricted where Blacks could live.

"My family has been here almost 100 years," said Chastang. "They moved here in 1927."

Playwright Jeffry Chastang is photographed in the Annapolis Park Historic District in Westland, Mich. on Jan. 17, 2022.

Inkster figures prominently in Chastang's new play, "Under Ceege," making its world premiere Wednesday at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre, one of Michigan's premiere regional theaters. 

The play — which centers on a multigenerational family living in an Inkster housing complex, including an adult son who wants his mom to move to a better area and doesn't understand why she wants to stay — is the Purple Rose's first live production in nearly two years since COVID-19 hit. 

Katie Hubbard, the Purple Rose's managing director, said the theater did a virtual reading of "Under Ceege" during the pandemic and everyone fell in love with the story and characters.

"There are so many great Detroit specific references that our audiences will love," said Hubbard. Chastang's work "is new to the Purple Rose as well as the artists and understudies that make up this cast. The play supports so much of what we want this return of the Purple Rose to be. Inclusive, diverse, and welcoming to new and returning artists and patrons, yet remaining at the heart of our mission to create new original work."

And for a play that Chastang says is really about transitions — a family in transition in a city also in transition — that's appropriate for the Purple Rose, which also is in the midst of change after its longtime artistic director, Guy Sanville, stepped down last fall amid allegations of creating a toxic workplace. A search for a new director is ongoing, said Hubbard in a message to patrons on the Purple Rose's website.

Actor Jonathan West plays Ceege and Sandra Love Aldridge portrays Lucky in "Under Ceege" at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.

"Under Ceege" takes its name from a nickname for the son in the play, Cary Grant or CG for short. Ceege lives with his mother, Lucky, whose father has just died. Together, they live in the same Inkster housing complex — and play the lottery — where Lucky has spent her entire life. But her son wants her to consider moving to Annapolis Park Historic District, a Westland neighborhood with neat ranches.

Director Lynch Travis believes many will be able to relate to "Under Ceege," especially for families with different generations and adult children trying to determining what's best for older ones.

"You want the best for them," said Travis. But "maybe your idea of what the best is doesn't match theirs."

Inkster, located 14 miles west of Detroit, became home to thousands of Black workers in the early 20th century because of a lack of housing in Detroit and redlining practices. In 1920, Detroit Urban League President John Dancy found 140 acres in Inkster without restrictive covenants to build homes, according to The Henry Ford.

"That's how a lot of Henry Ford's Black workers got to Inkster," said Chastang. "That's how my uncle and aunt and another couple who they came from Georgia with got to Inkster, moved to Inkster. Henry Ford built a lot of homes for his Black workers in Inkster."

Ford has been criticized for his paternalism, but "I always say you have to put it in the context of the times," said Chastang. "It was light years better than what they left behind, particularly in the South."

"Under Ceege" opens with the death of Lucky's father, Ceege's grandfather. And while her son wants her to move, Lucky plans to die in the same complex where she's spent her life.

"She was strongly rooted there," said Chastang, who in his 50s lives in Westland now but has family still in Inkster.

Growing up Inkster, Chastang remembers feeling the city's transition when segregation lifted and people could live wherever they wanted. But even as negative stories dominant Inkster, "there were so many beautiful people there," he said. "It's so much more than that."


'Under Ceege'

at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street in Chelsea.

Thursday through March 12

Go to https://www.purplerosetheatre.org/