Oliver Pookrum is a man with a message. The founder of Detroit’s African Renaissance Theater (ART) can talk for hours on the future of black theater and the importance of live performance in a city with only one commercial movie theater. The exciting thing is that people are listening.
“What we need to do is get high school kids to come out. Maybe give them theater as an educational tool in the schools,” says Pookrum. “Why don’t they go out and see shows — make it part of the curriculum? It has to be a movement. It has to be. Because right now, it’s so far gone.”
For his part, Pookrum is staging shows like the award-winning Jesus Hopped the A Train, which premiered at Hastings Street Ballroom in March, and this month’s The Trip (also at Hastings). Slowly, through word of mouth, audiences are beginning to show up to catch a glimpse of a black theater revival.
The Trip hinges on communication among four middle-aged girlfriends traveling from Chicago to California in a beat-up rental car, chipping away at topic after topic until they realize they may not know each other as well as they thought.
Earth Wind and Fire’s “September” kicks off the production as Jo Anne (Madelyn Porter), Ginny (Yvonne P. Mangrum), Nikki (Sadie Bernice) and Victoria (Sandra D. Hines) mug for a camera. The rosy scene quickly fades into nostalgic memory as the car radio breaks, leaving the women with nothing but the sound of each other’s voices to pass the time.
First, there’s Jo Anne, bragging about her successful life and perfect marriage; then Ginny, smacking her gum and talking about men she can’t commit to. Victoria shares stories of a quickie divorce (on her mother’s advice); Nikki tries to ignore jabs at her marriage to a chump. In a tight space, the women are forced to contend with the play’s mantra: “If you don’t deal with your issues, your issues will deal with you.”
The script isn’t edgy; the characters can largely be summed up as the know-it-all, the beauty queen, the mama’s girl and the mouse. Aside from Nikki, the characters don’t get much more multidimensional as the play moves along — even when we discover intimate details of their lives.
But the production is high-energy fun. The actresses bring such warmth and true friendship to their roles that The Trip needn’t be compared with the theater’s heavier debut — it’s apples and oranges. The women are priceless to watch as they tear through a seedy motel, nearly drive off a cliff, step in cow shit and cut on each other’s husbands.
According to Pookrum (who directed the show), The Trip was chosen as the follow-up to Jesus Hopped the A Train for its comedic style, a refreshing turn from Jesus. The current run allows the company to stretch its wings — but most importantly, it’s a celebration of all things women.
“Seeing how important women are to the theater community here, I’m happy to be one of the people helping to make it known,” says Pookrum.
“This is theater for fun. That’s not the same as going to hear someone lecture on a book they wrote, which is more like Jesus Hopped the A Train.”
He says variety within his work and productions is good for himself, as an artist and playwright, but most of all, “it’s good for the audience."
See The Trip at Hastings Street Ballroom (714 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) through Nov. 2. Show times are Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. Call 313-870-9002 for further info.E-mail Kari Jones at email@example.com.