Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Several years ago, Not for Sale appeared as a short Minnesota Fringe Festival piece by journalist Barbara Teed. Over several years, readings and workshops followed, during which time veteran playwright Kim Hines joined forces with Teed. The result is the two-act play now receiving its world premiere at History Theatre. It begins in 1965, with most action occurring in the Weigel family's South Saint Paul home: Arnold; his homemaker wife Ivah; their young son Eugene; and middle-school age daughter Barbara. That same Barbara Weigel grew up to become Barbara Teed, our playwright, now looking back at the crucible on which her father stormed against such practices as redlining, racial covenants, and gentlemen's agreements that kept Black, Hispanic, and Asian families out of all-white communities.
Arnie's easy charm and enthusiasm for helping people realize their dreams serves him well. He has just been named top home-seller by the realty association. He writes a column for the local newspaper answering readers' questions about home ownership. Ivah keeps a tidy home, is active in local civic life, and enjoys entertaining the couple's many friends. It seems like a storybook life. Then Arnie begins to break the rules, helping Black and Hispanic families purchase homes in all-white neighborhoods, and speaking out publicly about fair housing in his newspaper column and at public gatherings. Their friends, Arnie's fellow realtors, mortgage brokers, even their minister, suddenly see Arnie in a new light and pull away, from both him and Ivah. The more Arnie succeeds in circumventing the barriers to fair housing, the more his business and personal life fails.
The play is well written, with dialogue that has an assured spark of authenticity. Teed draws on her childhood memories and the precise journals kept by her mother, while Hines has first-hand knowledge of racial equity issues as a Black woman with Twin Cities roots. Scenes that reveal the dynamics of a family under enormous pressure have a ring of painful truth, while accounts of abject discrimination from Arnie's clients describe their experiences clearly without succumbing to pedantry or soap-box declaiming.
Ron Peluso's staging pivots adroitly between scenes that reveal the intransigence of Arnie's business associates, the dilemmas of families in need of housing, and the unraveling effect all of this has at home, for Ivah and their children.
There is, to be sure, far less about the plight of the families blocked from purchasing homes they clearly can afford and take care of, simply because of their skin color or their national origin. Consider the Younger family in Loraine Hanbury's masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun (the Guthrie's pandemic-delayed production has just been rescheduled to play April 30 through June 5). Though set a decade before Not for Sale, and in Chicago rather than Saint Paul, it shows the turmoil among members of a Black working-class family who manage to purchase a home in the fictional all-white suburb of Clybourne Park, where they are clearly unwelcome. Raisin reveals the point of view of a family like the ones Arnie Weigel bends over backwards to help. It does not show us the realtor who enabled them to purchase that house in Clybourne Park; that is what Not for Sale does. There is a place for both stories to be told, certainly to witness the trauma and courage it took for Black families to move, against the current, into intentionally white communities, but also to acknowledge the guts and conviction of white allies like Arnie, and what it cost such men and women to do what they knew to be the right thing.
The one aspect of Not for Sale that left me wanting is the absence of any insight into what brought Arnold Weigel to adopt such strong values around racial justice. While absolutely commendable, and without questioning the sincerity with which he acted, it would be enlightening to learn the source of those values. His parents? an inspirational teacher? His experience in the armed forces? We never find out. The play does show us Ivah especially, as well as daughter Barbara, affected and changed by Arnie's unyielding stance. We see them succumb to change, whereas Arnie maintains the same core values throughout, even as he is painfully diminished from the abuse piled upon him by realtors, mortgage brokers and neighbors
The play is advantaged by terrific performances by Andrew Wheeler Erskine and Charity Jones, as Arnie and Ivah. Erskine makes us believe Arnie's convictions, and when he pushes back against those who say their property values will fall if a Black family moves next door by countering "My property value won't go down ... my roof won't start leaking, my paint won't peel. Why should property values go down?," we want to cheer for his common sense and sense of decency. Ivah starts off as a wifely partner managing the home while her bread-winning husband basks in success. Early on, Jones portrays this part of Ivah's persona with great charm, then shows us the gathering storm of sadness, fear and anger, her torment as prejudice turns friends into adversaries, and at believing in Arnie's cause, yet needing to counter his actions in order to save the family from ruin. The two actors are extraordinary depicting a couple watching the dissembling of their happy home, Ivah grieving, Arnie in denial.
The remainder of the cast, most of whom play multiple roles, do solid work all around, with special notice to Kendall Olson as Barbara and Carter Monahan as Eugene, the Weigels' two children, who both capture the spirit of their respective ages. When these two children happen upon their parents at a low moment and silently watch as their lives are crumbling, we completely feel their anxious disbelief.
Rick Polenek has designed a clever setting, with blueprint-like markings on the stage floor delineating spaces in a modest home, and a backdrop composed of the frames of differing home styles, and makes versatile use of a table spun around to create an office desk, a conference room table, a card table, and varied dining rooms. Kathy Maxwell's video projections, though, are what really bring the stage to life, creating a true sense of the historical context in which the story takes place. All other design and tech credits serve the play well, creating a production of consistently high quality.
This is an important story that has not lost its relevance. While banks and mortgage agencies can no longer practice redlining and racial covenants, though still written on the deeds of many homes in certain neighborhoods, inequities in home ownership and in the quality of housing continue to exist among racial groups. Understanding what happened a couple of generations back is important in being able to address today's reality. It is also valuable to come to terms with what it took to withstand the tremendous pressure to leave things alone and to back down from doing the right thing. One wonders how many shared Arnie Weigel's beliefs but failed to summon the courage to act on them.
Not for Sale runs through February 27, 2022 at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $35.00 - $48.00; seniors (age 60+) $30.00 - $43.00; under 30 -$30.00; Students, ages 5-18, $15.00 with ID. Golden Circle tickets: $53.00, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwrights: Kim Hines and Barbara Teed ; Director: Ron Peluso; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Anna Hill; Lighting Design: Merritt Rodriguez; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Props Design: Kirby Moore; Associate Lighting Designer: Tony Stoeri; Assistant Lighting Designer: Aaron Robinson; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Stage Manager: Janet Hall; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.
Cast: Nayely Becerra Castillo (Odessa), Ron Collier (William), Nathaniel Fuller (Minister/Denny/Howard/Sheriff), Charity Jones (Ivah Weigel), Eric Knutson (Victor/Tom), Carter Monahan (Eugene Weigel), Kendall Olson (Barbara Weigel), Shae Palic (Lorraine/Georgia/et al), Monica E. Scott (Pearl/Diane), Carolina Sierra (Jesse), Adán Varela (Ricardo), Andrew Erskine Wheeler (Arnold Weigel)