There seems to be a resurgence of interest in Detroit’s first black mayor. An updated version of The Quotations of Mayor Coleman A. Young (Wayne State University Press) is not far off, and Coleman A. Young Jr. recently appeared in a preview of the upcoming play Hit 8-Mile: I Remember Coleman. And now Odell Waller, the playwright behind the musical Trouble in Paradise Valley, presents Citizen Young, a one-man show chronicling the life and times of Coleman A. Young.
What’s going on here? Perhaps enough time has passed to gain a better perspective of Young’s legacy. Also, it’s an election year. People are invariably going to make comparisons to mayors past. With the Kilpatrick administration enveloped in controversy and accused of corruption, we seem ripe for a look back at the controversial Young years.
Citizen Young certainly revels in controversy, but here, Young, portrayed by actor Dexter Mays, is neither a mush-mouthed, lisping caricature nor a carefully airbrushed bowdlerization. He’s an earthy, vulgar and appealingly cantankerous executive chronicling his rise to power.
Certainly, the mayor had his tart-tongued charm, but this show presents a portrait of a man who was witness to the great upheavals of the 20th century. He was a member of the generation that went through depression and war, labor struggles and the civil rights movement. The production presents the legacy of a radical who walked beside such civil rights legends as Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson.
Most of the plot takes place over the course of one night, Devil’s Night in 1992, a pivotal point for a mayor nearing the end of his fifth term and considering whether he’ll run again. Young walks into his Manoogian Mansion office, doffs his trademark homburg, and sits down to pore over his memoirs and reflect upon his life. Through the course of the evening he handles city emergencies, battles with uncooperative reporters and fields late-night death threats. In between phone calls, Young bursts into rants and remembrances. He rails against the media, recounts his accomplishments and recalls his life, from his youth in Detroit’s fabled Black Bottom neighborhood to his days as a Tuskegee airman to his years as a civil rights crusader.
The narrative stresses Young’s activism, his organization of boycotts and pickets, his work as an integrator and agitator, culminating in his defiant testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. These stories present a crusader for social equality and justice, an appealingly outspoken opponent of the power structure of his day.
At one point in the play, a voice declares, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Depending on your viewpoint, that would be either the inspiring summary or the damning epitaph of Young’s career. By his own admission, the mayor subscribed to Samuel Gompers’ credo, “Reward your friends and punish your enemies.” Local citizens who were unlucky enough to get in Young’s way, such as the residents of Poletown, knew his meanness. Waller’s script avoids criticizing Young’s ruthlessness after his ascent to power. Some audience members will find this portrayal too sympathetic.
Waller’s script also places tough demands on Mays. A one-man show often requires a spellbinding orator and versatile actor who, alone, can conjure the fullness and richness of one man’s world. Mays must play a well-known character without stooping to impersonation; his performance should seem authentic.
Perhaps Waller’s demands on Mays are unfair. This script calls for Mays to command audiences’ attention for more than an hour. Who can blame Mays for putting so much energy into a character who should be ailing? Considering the odds against him, Mays does a gallant job.
The play’s technique can be a bit clunky at times; television anchors open the show with snippets of mock newscasts that, at best, get the job done, and prolonged musical interludes do little to propel the story. There are also some obscure references that only Young scholars will get. But there’s a wealth of shithouse wit in Waller’s writing; the playwright exercises his mastery of Young’s profanity and obscenity. With swinging dicks, balls getting chopped off and motherfuckers a-go-go, this play earns its “adult language” warning with flying colors.
Of course, it all depends on what theatergoers finds offensive. Sensibilities have changed. We’ve become accustomed to sanctimonious politicians, so Young’s gritty candor can seem either offensive or heroic. As the play makes clear, he offended the sensibilities of his day not with a shameless capacity for lying but with a blunt capacity for telling the truth, whether it be to the public, the press or Joe McCarthy. Who is brave enough to do that today?
At the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 8 p.m., March 5, 6 and 13. Call 313-659-9851 for more information. Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org