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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

West of Central
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Dial M for Murder, Awake and Sing! and Little Women


Brian A Grandison, Austene Van, and Stephen Yoakam
Photo by Rich Ryan
What a great idea! Take the wit and heat of the old Thin Man movies that stirred up a cocktail of glamour and crime capers from the 1930s into the 1940s, with an attractive husband and wife (debonair William Powell and lissome Myrna Loy) gumshoe team whose banter passes back and forth with the speed of popcorn popping. Jettison them to 1966 Los Angeles, a year after the Watts riot, make the stylish couple African American, and give them a case that crosses murder with segregated housing, racial convents, and block busting. This seems to be the idea behind West of Central, by Christina Ham (Nina Simone: Four Women), having its world premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre.

It turns out that transforming a great idea into a great—or even good—play is not so easy. Things start well, as Ham's transforms The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles into Thelma and Vernon Higgins. Casting Austene Van and Harry Waters Jr. as the sleuthing spouses was a great place to start. Both actors convey the requisite poise, confidence, style, and easygoing chemistry.

The plot begins when a white woman, June Franklin (Olivia Wilusz), visits the Higgins' Watts-based office while Thelma is on duty. June is desperately seeking Thelma's husband Vernon—only she calls him Earl. This would seem like a case of mistaken identity, but June produces a photo that shows her and Earl together, looking chummy. This gets Thelma's attention. Suddenly there are gun shots and June reveals that someone is out to kill her, and Earl (or is it Vernon?) too. June turns out to be the daughter of real estate mogul Sidney Franklin (Stephen Yoakam), who is making a killing building housing in Compton and rebuilding destroyed parcels in Watts, taking advantage of the restrictions (legal and not) that limit black families to just a few L.A. neighborhoods. June has been hiding from her father, who wants back an all-important document that she has spirited away.

Two acts later, after there has been murder, double-crosses, and first rate sleuthing, the case is closed, with the possibility of justice waiting in the wings. Along the way, Thelma and Myron's poker-playing pal Mac (Theo Langason), who happens to be an L.A. cop, gets lassoed into the case; Sid summons his best boy, Chester Williams (Brian A. Grandison), a black man getting rich selling overpriced homes to eager-to-buy black families; and Hazel Tyler (Aimee K. Bryant), whose nephew was killed by a bullet meant for June, directs her sultry charms toward Vernon before revealing her true loyalties.

The plot is a bit strained, but the pieces of the puzzle do finally fit—more or less. Still, the resolution hardly feels worth the circuitous route taken to get there. My suspicion is that the insertion of topical issues related to 1960s housing discrimination and exploitation—issues whose tails continue to weigh upon communities of color today—are meant to lift the facile narrative to a higher level of importance. Thelma cites the 1948 court ruling voiding the use of covenants to keep people of color from moving into certain neighborhoods, such as Sugar Hill, where Thelma and Vernon reside. The practice of block-busting that turned white neighborhoods into black neighborhoods and triggered the phenomena of white flight is explicitly described. References to the riots in Watts are meant to signify the arrival of a turning point in the fight for civil rights, as when Thelma asserts to Sid, it was not a riot, but an uprising.

The history here is compelling, but it feels tagged on to make West of Central something more important than a whodunnit with laugh lines. When explanations are given, such as the description of block-busting, the plays feels put on pause to make sure the audience is well schooled before proceeding, while at other times, nuggets of history are set out like enhancements to the set décor, contributing ambience but not meaning to the play. For example, reference to the bisection of Sugar Hill by construction of the Santa Monica Freeway mirrors the destruction of St. Paul's historically black Rondo neighborhood by Interstate 94. Yes, we get it, the play is set in L.A. but the issues have a greater reach—but this factoid does nothing to move the plot ahead.

Director Hayley Finn does smooth work of moving through the mystery story, leaving out the dots for the audience to dutifully connect along with the detectives, and maintaining a smoky noir atmosphere. The difficulty with blending in the shards of history and sociology are more a factor of the play than its staging. Then too, the writing strains for humor, seeking laughs too often by sexualizing the phrases "private dick," "black dick," and "female dick."

Van succeeds in making Thelma an appealing character, who is smart, brazen, and full of confidence, as shown by the nonchalant manner with which she rebuffs Sid, who assumes she has appeared in his office as the cleaning woman and orders her to wash the windows by telling him "this suit is from Bonwit Teller, and Bonwit Teller don't do glass." Waters, as Vernon, is a fine match for Van. He is handsome and sharp-witted, exercising a suave manner to gain entrée to closed doors, and off-handedly deflecting suspicions about his unaccounted life before hooking up with Thelma. Yoakam's Sid is the epitome of corporate swine. His face is frozen into a gloating smirk, a glad-hander who is merely giving the people what they want, until someone gets under his skin and his smirk dissolves into a menacing sneer.

Wilusz impresses as overwrought June, and Bryant handles ably the plot's call for her to pivot from an alcohol-primed seductress to practical problem solver. Grandison excels as the kind of man who sees only what serves his rise, oblivious to the inevitable downfall. Langason's Mac seems to lack resolve, less cocky than one might expect of a member of the LAPD. The script does him no favors by making him the one cop who happens to be buddies with Vern and Thelma, and happens to be on the scene whenever a police officer is needed. Is the LAPD force really that understaffed?

Joel Sass' set design cleverly transforms between the five different locales called for within the confines of Pillsbury House's small stage, with attention to details such as framed photos on the wall in high-rolling Sid's office with his arm around Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Sound designer Katherine Horowitz has collated a witty collection of detective themes from past films and television shows for transitions and underscoring. Amber Brown's costumes serve the characters and period well—and Thelma's suit does have a Bonwit Teller look to it.

West of Central—Central Avenue being the dividing line between the zones where African-American Angelinos were and were not able to live—works as a detective story decked out with glamour and humor. It also addresses historical roots of race-based housing discrimination, but those efforts feel like a thing apart from the play. In fact, the legacy of housing covenants could no doubt be grist for a stirring play in their own right, sans the trappings of the private-eye genre. The work of Mapping Prejudice, a project spawned by the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, to research covenants against selling homes to blacks, Asians, Jews and others, still on the books though ruled unenforceable, in the Twin Cities, is on display in the lobby of Pillsbury House and warrants our attention. Perhaps, though, simplifying the matter into a few talking points as an accessory to a play whose form and style are in the form of light entertainment is not the best way to deliver those worthy messages.

West of Central is worth seeing for its clever update of an old form and the sharp performances by its two leads.

West of Central, through October 14, 2018, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets and information, call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Playwright: Christina Ham; Director: Haley Finn; Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katharine Horowitz; Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Props Design: Kellie Larson; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Assistant Stage Manager: Rosemary Hartunian Alumbraugh; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond.

Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (Hazel Tyler), Brian A. Grandison (Chester "Chess" Williams), Theo Langason (Officer MacKenzie), Austene Van (Thelma Higgins), Harry Waters Jr. (Vernon Higgins), Olivia Wilusz (June Franklin), Stephen Yoakam (Sidney Franklin).


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