When Detroit native Aku Kadogo last worked at home, it was with a group of student actors at Wayne State University's Black Theatre Program, in a production of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
It was 2002, and Kadogo's indelible influence helped to spit-shine the talents of that cast. Four years later, she again returns to the BTP from her home in Sydney, Australia, to direct Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, by Canadian playwright Djanet Sears. The world truly is Kadogo's stage, and her travels heavily pepper her perspective. The producer, director, choreographer, teacher and traveler currently serves as the associate choreographer in a production of Rent in China. Worldly experiences such as this are a boon in her life, and she's gained an appreciation of Detroit from an outsider's viewpoint.
Kadogo brings an eye for staging and casting enhanced by her adventures, and this play benefits. An indigenous Australian ceremony she witnessed last year inspired the "living set," by designer David Court, which has real trees to authenticate the western Ontario town in which the play takes place. In this morality play, the setting is Negro Creek, a once-thriving black community whose residents are struggling, individually and collectively, to preserve the town's integrity. The story mainly follows Rainey (Deborah Joy Winans), a nonpracticing physician who has lost her faith and drive in the wake of her young daughter's passing. Her sorrow unfortunately comes with two additional costs: Her marriage to Michael (Henri Franklin), a minister for whom liberation theology is a mantra, is failing, and she struggles to understand the comic activism of her dying father, Abendigo (Thomas Harris), and his cast of septuagenarian cronies.
The characters of Michael and Rainey are in serious emotional turmoil, and the respective portrayals by Franklin and Winans are potent examples of young actors illuminating issues that young people don't usually face. Harris, who plays Rainey's 71-year-old father, has the greatest challenge, however, because he has the most youthful physique of all the lead characters. He surmounts the obstacle with easy wit, and he also has a feel for maneuvering on a tricky set it's styled to look more like countryside, so it would be easy to trip.
But credit the cast overall for acting out situations that require maturity and breadth beyond the average student's experience. The Black Theatre Program's multi-ethnic actors also succeed in bringing a humanity and integrity to the characters that goes beyond the issue of race. Sears draws comparisons between the struggle of African-Canadians and African-Americans, but this doesn't to come off as a so-called black play. It's just good.
A ubiquitous chorus contributes macabre intrigue to the production, and the majority of the movement and atmosphere comes from them. They sing, float and shadow the lead characters, sometimes portraying the heritage and spirit of Negro Creek, sometimes becoming the breath of death. They are eerie, and very effective.
A return home reminds Aku Kadogo that, at day's end, all Detroiters want to know is how an experience will entertain them, and the length of this play may be a drawback. There are three storylines, requiring attentiveness early on, and eventually, they turn into a tale that clocks in at two and a half hours with the intermission. But there's more than enough to keep audiences interested and intrigued. Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is a great way to connect to Detroit's true artistic pulse, just a week before Super Bowl mania submerges it in a sea of glitz.
8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Bonstelle Theatre, 3424 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2960. Tickets are $11-$14.Khary Kimani Turner writes about theater and music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org