Any theater fan who’s explored Detroit’s smaller, often half-hidden venues knows a secret: Alchemy is possible. In revamped spaces across the city — including Hastings Street Ballroom (a former printing factory), Planet Ant Theater (a Hamtramck storefront-turned-theater) and Abreact (a Greektown loft) — artists are using limited resources to create work that’s valuable to the community. Shake Detroit upside down and its pockets rain gold.
A new addition to the ranks is Redd Apple Gallery, a cozy 60-seat space that opened a little more than a year ago as a venue for visual art, film, poetry, fashion and photography. Since then, owner Katrina Redd has collaborated with African Renaissance Theater Company (ART) founder Oliver Pookrum to add theater to the list.
“This is such a big gamble. But the reward is in the risk,” says Pookrum. “That’s the kind of experience I want, people taking chances. I mean, look at Iron Street [the gallery’s location]. There’s basically nothing but a facade here, and then you come into this rich, interesting creative oasis. Sometimes these are the best places to see a play.”
The surrounding block is desolate, even eerie. But beyond the gallery door lies a brightly lit room with a small stage against one wall; colorful artwork is on display (currently the work of Ann Arbor resident Patrick Dodd). You’ll be greeted by Jerry Redd, Katrina’s father, and a slice of pie from the Harlequin Café, a sponsor. While you’re marveling at the hospitality, Pookrum will top off that pie with a heavy helping of drama.
The gallery’s inaugural play is the highly acclaimed Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. The play had a successful run on Broadway (starring Mos Def), won the 2002 Pulitzer for drama and received a Tony nomination for Best Play. It explores topics that ring true in Detroit.
Poverty, racism and the dynamics of a fractured family surface in the lives of brothers Lincoln (Doug McCray) and Booth (Pookrum, who also directed the show). Abandoned by their parents at a young age, the two African-American men — now in their 30s — needle each other’s nerves in a ramshackle apartment. Lincoln has the uncomfortable job of impersonating Abraham Lincoln (in full regalia and white face) at a local arcade. Tourists pay money to pretend-murder him with cap guns. Booth is unemployed, but hungers to be a successful three-card monte hustler like his older brother once was — if only Lincoln would share his secrets. The brothers’ Cain and Abel-like wrestling is presented mostly through dry symbolism, especially in the first act, and while there are interesting moments, the characters never seem to quite reveal themselves. However, Pookrum and McCray give commendable performances. Highly comedic moments ensue as Booth shows off his talents for shoplifting and Lincoln drunkenly bumbles through a rehearsal of his own assassination. It’s entertaining, but the play itself doesn’t offer many surprises. You may walk away wondering whether the Pulitzer was a bit much.
All the action takes place in one room, which is a nice fit for the gallery.
“I think it’s the perfect first production,” says Redd. “I knew it would be an intimate experience to do it in this space, and it’s nice to see it finally happening because it feels like it’s coming full circle.”
Redd had been looking to add theater to the gallery when she came across Pookrum, who was searching for a place for his two-year-old company to perform. Eventually, ART will become the company-in-residence at the new downtown YMCA. But until the Y opens in late 2005, Pookrum’s attention is focused on getting Redd Apple’s theater up and running.
When asked whether he feels the gallery will be competing with other small venues, Pookrum just laughs.
“I think we should look forward to the day when it’s a competition, but right now, we don’t have the audience. We have to work together to build the audience,” he says. “Instead of saying I want the biggest part of a small pie, I’d rather say, ‘How can we work to make this pie huge?’”
As a start, he’s listed the contact information for 17 local theaters and theater companies in Topdog/Underdog’s program under the heading “support our local theaters.” He and Redd are working to expand their own reach by holding talkbacks after each show to keep audiences engaged and to get them excited about theater.
“People talk for hours about what clothes the stars are wearing. Ask them about a play, and sometimes they just sit there quietly and say nothing,” Pookrum says. “Theater should bring us together. You want to leave a play and have people feel closer. We have to try to cultivate that.”
Fodder for future discussion includes work by celebrated Detroit playwright Ron Milner, who recently passed away, and a reprise of ART’s award-winning 2003 production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. There’s also a monthly play-reading series in the works.
So sit back. Take it all in, and if you’ve got time, stay to talk. Redd Apple Gallery holds the promise of delicious things to come.
Redd Apple Gallery, 227 Iron St., Suite 116, Detroit; 313-567-0712. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 2 Tickets $20, $10 students with ID. Kari Jones is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.