New play resurrects Detroit story of murder, corruption

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

Given the players involved and the outrageous circumstances, it was only a matter of time before the murder of exotic dancer Tamara “Strawberry” Greene became the basis for a true crime drama.

Fourteen years ago, the 26-year-old made front-page headlines after she was murdered in a drive-by on Detroit’s west side, four months after allegedly performing at a party for former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at the city’s Manoogian Mansion. Unconfirmed accounts claim the mayor’s wife crashed the bacchanal, witnessed Greene giving her husband a naked lap dance and attacked her with a baseball bat.

There are those who believe Greene’s death was tied to the mayoral scandal, and others who believe she may have been done in by a jealous ex. In any event, the case was put on ice, and Kilpatrick has been sent off to an Oklahoma federal prison for corruption charges unrelated to the party.

The question remains: Who killed Strawberry?

Former Detroit Free Press columnist and reporter Carol Teegardin explored the mystery in her 2011 self-published book “Strawberry: How an Exotic Dancer Toppled Detroit’s Hip-Hop Mayor.” Teegardin has since adapted the book into a three-act play, “Strawberry — What Party?” that premiered Jan. 20 at the Marlene Boll Theater to a nearly sold-out crowd.

Directed by Henry Ford College’s Mary Bremer-Beer, “Strawberry” returns for three shows this weekend.

She says her goal in producing the play was not only to unthaw this under-examined cold case, but also to be able to breathe new life into the story with a talented local cast and crew.

Teegardin spent years researching Greene’s life and murder for her book, interviewing more than 100 people involved with the case, as well as members of Greene’s family. But the final product didn’t flesh out the characters’ personalities to her satisfaction.

“In the book, it really felt like I wasn’t bringing her or Kwame to life enough,” she says. “In a play, I could show their humanity.”

Though it seems like an obvious challenge to cast the story’s main characters — a dead stripper and a corrupt politician — in a positive light.

“(Greene) was dismissed in the press at the time as somebody who was a dancer, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed,” she says. “Kwame actually had a charismatic way about him that a lot of people didn’t really get.”

The actor playing Kilpatrick, Roosevelt Johnson of Detroit, oozes charisma, but he’s 58 and less physically imposing than the former mayor. He says Beer instructed him to focus on developing empathy for his character.

“Hopefully, I can embody the strength and the passion he had for Detroit ...,” Johnson says.

Teegardin hopes the play’s portrayal of Greene dispels any preconceived notions about the dancer’s inner life.

This family portrait taken in the early 2000s shows Tamara Greene surrounded by her children, from left, Jonathan Bond, and sisters, India and Ashly Bond.

“She wanted to be a nurse, and she was going to go to school,” she says.

The play doesn’t draw conclusions about what actually happened to Greene on that fateful, rainy April night in 2003. Instead, Teegardin hopes to inspire the audience to consider broader issues of social injustice.

“Her life didn’t matter to the police,” she says. “It’s only one woman that this happened to, but she represents a whole lot of others.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

‘Strawberry — What Party?’

8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.

Marlene Boll Theater

Downtown Detroit YMCA

1401 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $20

(800) 838-3006