Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Of course, St. Paul's experience is far from unique. The face of urban America changed markedly from the 1950s to 1970s as a nation flush with confidence in its future and bursting with children born in the baby boom, heedlessly built highways and other civic works by removing communities that offered the least resistance. History Theatre's world premiere production of Josh Wilder's play The Highwaymen allows us today to witness how this played out here, as an example of stories repeated over and over across the country.
Wilder's play is symmetrically constructed. Three white characters form the team responsible for plotting a path for the highway to run from its Minneapolis connection on the west to Saint Paul's downtown and the state capital building on the east. One of these is George Shepard, the influential head of the department, who is guided by the practical realities of the political forces that demand this project. There is George Herrold, the retired, highly esteemed and idealistic city architect brought back as an advisor. The third is Frank Marzitelli, a son of Italian immigrants, who lacked education or pedigree, but whose union organizing background helped him to win a seat on the city council.
The Rondo community is represented by three black men. Pastor Floyd Massey presides at Plymouth Baptist Church, Minnesota's oldest (founded 1863) and largest African-American church. Massey also had a seat on the city planning board which was supposed to allow him to speak on behalf of his community. Timothy Howard is a third generation barber who owns his own shop in the Rondo, and who also becomes president of the Rondo Civic Improvement Association. C.J. is a friend of Howard's who works as a janitor in the city engineer's office. I could find no evidence that the latter two men, Timothy Howard or C.J, were real personages, but their depiction is totally plausible as representative of community members affected by the Rondo upheaval.
Scenic designer Wrara Plesoiu's turntable set has the city engineer's office on one side and Howard's barbershop on the other. In their office, the planning team members argue between the cheaper route which would cut through the Rondo, causing thousands of residents to lose their homes, and a more costly route that follows an existing railroad right of way. Herrold argues for the latter, putting people ahead of money. Marzitelli looks to score points for his upward career track by bringing the project in on budget, calling the loss to the neighborhood a necessary evil. Each of the black men also show up in that office. Massey appeals on behalf of his congregation and community, Howard represents the Rondo community's organizing forces, and C.J. is ignored by the white planning team while he cleans their office, but he certainly hears their blunt plans to dismember his neighborhood.
The barbershop depicts the richness and sense of continuity in the neighborhood, with the walls adorned with photographs of Rondo residents whose hair had been cut at Howard's. Massey, Howard, and C.J. argue over the best strategies to move forwardresistance versus accommodation. Howard draws an alternative plan for the highway which he delivers to the planning group, and much of the drama revolves around whether or not the men yielding the power will even look at that plan.
One of the best moments is when retired architect Herrold visits Howard in his barbershop to tell him they have had some success, and Howard's response is muted. Herrold questions him, "I thought you would be happier. This is a real victory," to which Howard responds, "I appreciate that, but one good deed doesn't make you a hero." Real heat is also generated in the stand-off between Herrold and Marzitelli, pitting progress against people. Unfortunately, not all of the dialogue is as crisp. At times characters make statements clearly included for the purpose of giving information to the audience, rather than sounding like real people having real conversations.
Director Jamil Jude allows each character to broadly represent an aspect of the story while still building real relationships between them, and keeps a rising arc of tension, noteworthy considering that the outcome is well known, at least to local theatergoers. Five of the six cast members bring strong performances that make these characters more than cardboard types. Kevin D. West is especially moving as Timothy Howard, a local workingman seeing his neighborhood in peril, and prompted to take action. Peter Thomson as the idealistic yet complicit George Herrold and E.J. Subkoviak as coarse, ambitious Frank Marzitelli are both excellent. Darrick Mosely as C.J and James Detmar as George Shepard both are fine in roles that have less to work with. Only Rex Isom Jr., as the Pastor Floyd Massey, seems too subdued, lacking the gravitas one would expect from a man of the pulpit.
The two sides of the turntable set show how far apart these two different worlds are: the city office, with marble columns and wood paneled walls, creating the look of a seat of power, compared to the folksy cluttered yet comfortable feeling of Howard's Barber Shop. Trevor Bowen's costumes could have been taken from the pages of a 1965 issue of Life or Look magazine, with their candid shots of the way we lived.
Of course, we know the outcome of this story: the highway was built through Rondo Avenue, which had been the main business artery of the neighborhood. While the neighborhood on either side of that stretch of I-94 remains primarily African American, it is split by a wide highway trench, and the vibrancy that was Rondo never recovered. Rondo Days remains an important annual celebration that brings back former residents and their descendants. It is fair to say that communities have found their voices, and that the destruction of neighborhoods is not as easily accomplished as it was fifty years ago. Still, the powers that define progress as increasing revenues rather than safeguarding communitiesurban and ruralcontinue to ram against one another. Timothy Howard's cries to "Keep your eyes open!" could be raised at Standing Rock as easily as an inner city. That's what makes The Highwaymen more than a local history. It is a call to remain vigilant.
The Highwaymen continues at History Theatre through February 26, 2017, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets $25.00 - $40.00; seniors (age 60+) $25.00 - $38.00; under 30 $35.00 - $30.00; students $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.
Writer: Josh Wilder; Director: Jamil Jude; Scenic Design: Wrara Plesoiu; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Sound Designer: Topher Pirkl; Properties Designer: Abbee Warmboe; Production Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Dramaturg: Gina Musto.
Cast: James Detmar (George Shepard), Rex Isom Jr. (Floyd Massey), Darrick Mosley (C.J.), E. J. Subkoviak (Rank Marzitelli), Peter Thomson (George Herrold), Kevin D. West (Timothy Howard).