It’s been called a comedy, but this play is really a horror story, adorned with insane angels that insist on laughing when everything around them cries and kills with ignorance and fear. Missizzy and the Angel Tree, by Southern playwright Daniel Du Plantis, continues at the Detroit Repertory Theatre through Dec. 30, plus a special New Year’s Eve performance.
Set in the emotional swamp of the early ’60s, deep in the heartless heart of Mississippi, Miss Isabelle Byrd is the complete opposite of what her husband, Damon, wants in a wife, as she represents all the qualities his soul lacks. Next to Damon (a funeral director and proud, hood-wearing member of the Ku Klux Klan), a white woman who speaks her mind and befriends anyone she pleases, despite their color, is a scourge.
Oh, and she’s crazy, fresh out of the Jackson nuthouse with no problem telling anybody and their brother about it, which is an embarrassment for the upstanding, cross-burning Damon. Damon’s intolerant temperament winds tighter and tighter as Isabelle finds solace in her closest friend, Joseph, a man of color, and in her “angel tree,” a childlike shrine to her musical, spiritual and ethical heroes. The tree is decorated with pictorial ornaments of Patsy Cline, Nat King Cole, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Abe Lincoln, Billie Holiday etc., along with some personal friends. All are equal on the angel tree, as well as in Miss Isabelle’s eyes, and she says, “Angels ain’t got nothing to do with death.”
Missizzy and the Angel Tree is not an easy script to tackle. Bouncing from comedy to tragedy is a constant for the crazy, and sometimes “regular” people just don’t know how to handle it, not knowing whether to smile at the light-hearted funny remark, or to cringe at the disastrous implications underlying it. But leave it to the Rep to jump right in, and bombard you with intense theatrical talent to boot.
Damon Byrd, a man who’s built his life on death and hate, is played by Detroit stage veteran Joseph Haynes, who seems to sweat emotional upheaval and angst throughout the play. Yet he somehow manages to evoke a sliver of sympathy even as he delivers lines to his wife such as, “Another man might have killed you by now.”
And if you happened to catch actor Robert Vogue-Williams’ performance in the Rep’s This Blood’s for You, you already have an idea of the dramatic capacity this man brings to Joseph, Miss Isabelle’s “dearest friend in this whole warped world.” Williams sizzles with substance and a song in his step whether he’s arguing or dancing with the perpetually self-deprecating Missizzy, portrayed by Nina Kircher, who makes losing her mind seem almost fun.
This is a strange soup of sensibilities concocted by a man who is used to unusual subject matter, having written plays about the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Tennessee William’s muse and sister Rose, and a shrimp boat captain who loses his faith in God. Don’t be surprised if you hear more and more about the DuPlantis’ works — he just received the Onassis International Theatrical Competition award, crowning a long list of prestigious achievements in writing.
What is crazy, but a voice in the wilderness? It’s a point of view the status quo refuses to understand. Missizzy is an angel in the wrong time and place for her own sake, but a saint at exactly the right moment for the wronged people she befriends.
Missizzy and the Angel Tree
Through Dec. 30 (special performance Mon., Dec. 31)
Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit
Thursday and Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, 3 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
For information and tickets call 313-868-1347