THEATER REVIEW | Freshwater Theatre Company’s “The Beacon From Belle Isle”: A play still under construction

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The high point of Ivey Award-winning Freshwater Theatre’s latest world premiere, J. Merrill Motz’s The Beacon From Belle Isle, comes near the beginning of act two. The Beacon From Belle Isle is a series of vignettes loosely organized around the notion of the personality of the state of Michigan. In this particular vignette, Beacon turns its eye on a soul group from the 1960s angling to make a comeback in the 21st century. The singing group had one breakout star who has struck off on her own for a successful solo career. The remaining three singers push on, both in the recording studio and on the air. Motz’ script skillfully ducks back and forth between an interview in the present with a radio DJ (who makes mistakes of her own) and an ill-fated recording session in the past, right when it was becoming clear that their solo act friend was never going to be coming back. The characters in the scene each have their own personality and agenda in both the past and the present, and the singing group soldiers on through one indignity and challenge after another. They’re not going to give up on their dream, but both the days presented to us are days that make you wonder why you keep putting yourself through the struggle.

“She ain’t dead.  She’s just too busy for us.”

Everyone does a great job in this vignette but the real standout in the group is Mikell Sapp as Leon. As a singer overshadowed by someone else’s talent, and whose fate lies uncomfortably in the hands of fellow singer Levi (Darrick Mosley) and the studio engineer (Joseph Miller) who are handling the business end of things, Leon’s anger is often volcanic. Leon also wields humor and silence as weapons to get his point across, and to prod people into doing something he wants or is tired of waiting for. In Sapp’s hands, Leon forces the issue and moves the plot. His nervous energy peels the lid off of everyone else’s discomfort and reveals the mess under the surface. He quickly has the radio DJ (Charlotte Calvert) afraid of making yet another mistake around him. He also has the third weary singer in their trio, Chandra (Dana Lee Thompson) wishing he were a lot less right about their group’s downward trajectory and relative obscurity. Mikell Sapp’s turn as Leon in this particular scene is one of those moments where you watch an actor at work and wonder, “Where the heck has he been hiding?  He’s great!”

“I am of course Henry Ford, and you’re welcome.”

It would be nice to report that the rest of The Beacon From Bell Isle lives up to the high water mark set in the singers’ vignette, but Motz’s script and the production, directed by Jamil Jude, is a pretty uneven affair. It’s hard to know precisely what The Beacon From Belle Isle is supposed to be about. It purports to be specifically about the character of the state of Michigan, and how that might reflect outward on the general state of the country of the United States of America. Michigan seems a likely metaphor, built as it is on the twin economic engines of the automobile industry and the music industry, manufacturing and the arts both moving through the state’s bloodstream. At the same time, there are still places in the state you could call wilderness, places where a person could get lost and perhaps see back in time to a land unspoiled by modern society. Few states have been harder hit by the recent economic downturn. Detroit is the largest city in the nation to declare bankruptcy. 

“So it’s a horror movie.”

Michigan has also been aggressively experimenting with dismantling democracy to try and solve its economic woes. The state has been installing emergency managers all across the state to take over troubled cities and school districts. The emergency managers essentially take over control of the city or school district, negating the power of any elected officials the voters may have chosen to run things, with the power to sell off the town’s assets to help pay the bills. When Michigan voters overturned the emergency manager law at the ballot box, the state government just passed another version of the law that couldn’t be put up for a popular vote and kept using emergency managers anyway. The underlying premise seems to be that democracy is the problem, people can’t be trusted to govern themselves, so it’s time to just step in and fix things whether the people living there like it or not. There is also a troubling racial element to the whole affair, with a majority of the black population of the state living under the sway of these emergency managers. Finally, there isn’t much evidence that the radical solution to the problem is having any positive results. Still, they keep applying the strategy.

“It seemed like when I got up this morning that was big news.”

The director’s note in the program for The Beacon From Belle Isle says that the play wasn’t designed to try and “fix” either Detroit or Michigan, that they weren’t “equipped to handle that task, nor were we interested in being another unhelpful voice in that discussion.” Which leaves me scratching my head. Because if you’re not going to have an opinion, why bother talking? Sure, you don’t want to start rambling on off the top of your head without any knowledge of the facts of the situation or consideration of the all the parties involved, but a play, and a production of a play, are built to have some time to consider such things. Nobody’s ad-libbing here. By telling a story, you are naturally taking sides. You are deciding which parts of the narrative are worth focusing on and presenting to an audience. If anything, it’s a lack of focus that’s hobbling The Beacon From Belle Isle right now. It’s not possible to write a neutral play about everything. Not a good one anyway. Right now The Beacon From Belle Isle is falling victim to a sort of blandness and generic feel. First it doesn’t really spend any significant time with any one situation or set of characters. Then it compounds this attention deficit disorder with a fear of saying anything unpleasant or being seen to take sides.

“You can’t forget where you came from.”

OK, spoiler alert. In order to talk about what some of these scenes could be, I need to address what they currently are. There’s a vignette with a school that’s been slated for closing. A teacher with an uncertain employment future (Dana Lee Thompson again) must contend with two men (Bill Studer and Joseph Miller) who have come to scout the place for raw material to be scavenged for other uses once the school is torn down. The teacher discovers at the very end of the scene that one of these men is a former student of hers. Given all the battering that the reputation of public schools and teachers have taken in recent years, and the pain inflicted on communities when schools are closed (even when the decision to close is good and necessary), such a situation seems rife with potential. It goes unmined here. Also, the teacher appears to be passing judgment on the employment of her former student. Sure, it’s a disappointment when we all don’t turn out to be Nobel Prize winning scientists, but any job, including blue collar physical labor, is a valid occupation. It’s not like the kid grew up to be a drug dealer or a guard at a concentration camp. What’s with the attitude? He might be working for interests who are picking the corpse of the school building for whatever good material might be salvaged, but some people in this economy don’t have the luxury of working for people with pristine intentions. Have that argument.

“This lady smelled so good I forgot I was in a bar.”

In another vignette, a young man (Joseph Miller again) brings his black gay boyfriend (Mikell Sapp again) home to meet the grandparents (Bill Studer again, and Christine Sweet) while his sister (Rachel Flynn) looks on. The grandparents don’t know that the two men are boyfriends but the audience would have to be pretty thick not to figure it out from the body language alone. When the discussion turns to the misfortunes of Detroit, things quickly unravel. Grandpa says a number of things that, while not strictly racist, cause some awkward and insensitive moments. Basically, the white people who can have fled the city, and with a majority of those remaining in Detroit being people of color, Grandpa bemoans the fact that the city has become unlivable. Even though human beings still live there. The boyfriend can only listen to so many dismissive pronouncements before he responds. The grandson leaps into the fray to back up his boyfriend, who is planning to move to Detroit to try and help revitalize city neighborhoods. Everyone is enormously relieved to be able to shift the conversation to the revelation “Oh, you’re gay, well, that’s all right then” and extricate themselves from the quicksand of discussing race. Thank God we can have awkward conversations about sodomy instead. So, OK, maybe the writer doesn’t feel they have the authority to talk about issues of race. But here’s a multiracial cast (a rarity) because tales of Michigan and Detroit in particular are multiracial in nature. It’s a theater company devoted to new play development. Utilize the resources of your actors. Develop the play. Have the awkward conversation about race instead of the quick, easy joke about gay people.

“Different state, different cold.”

Poor Nate Cheeseman and Shannon Leach are actors literally stranded in a plot line where their car breaks down by the side of the road on a remote Michigan highway. It begins and ends the play and is repeatedly returned to throughout as a sort of framing device, even though nothing of consequence ever happens. You could argue that both Michigan and America writ large are well represented by a car broken down by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with no help in sight. But don’t let the metaphor sit there limply. Do something with it. Make each of the two people and even the car really stand for something. Use their conflict to unpack the larger conflict of a society of haves and have-nots that don’t share equally in the pain of the economic downturn or the fruits of the anemic recovery. You’ve already got the two characters stuck together with no easy chance of escape—turn up the friction. For a brief wonderful moment it seems like someone might be trying to communicate with the young man through the car radio, but it passes. Why am I supposed to care that these two people stay together or get back together (other than rooting for there being more love in the world)? What’s the larger issue?

“The Indians know how to show you a good time.”

There’s a keeper of a lighthouse (Brandon Bruce) on the island of Belle Isle, an idyllic spot in the middle of the Detroit River, within sight of the struggling city of Detroit, and on the other side—Canada. This is the titular Beacon from Belle Isle, just brimming with significance—not exploited here. There’s a chat with a woman who owns a cribbage bar. There is a scene where a father is driving a reluctant daughter to a baseball game which morphs into the adult daughter driving her older father in failing health to a baseball game. It’s an interesting conceit and the transformation is fun to watch but again, what’s the point—for Detroit, for Michigan, for America? Dad repeatedly references Ty Cobb and whoa, there’s a loaded sports reference. Anything? No. OK then.  

“Is that blood?”

“Well, I don’t clean ‘em off with a toothbrush.”

There’s even a panel of famous folks with ties to Michigan—Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Chief Pontiac, Aretha Franklin, and Madonna among them. In a casting twist, the male historical figures are all played by female members of the cast and vice versa. Any one of these icons from history, in some cases even a small corner of one of their lives, could be an entire play. The casting decision—whether made by the script or the director—also holds promise. Here, more unused potential.

“The Creole on this guy.”

In trying to say a little bit about everything, The Beacon From Belle Isle ends up saying a lot about nothing. In dancing around potentially uncomfortable subject matter, The Beacon From Belle Isle avoids engaging the audience. If you’re going to go there, go there. If you’re not, then why write a play? I know it may not sound like it, but I’m actually a fan of Freshwater Theatre and the work they do, developing new plays. In the case of something like The Beacon From Belle Isle, they just need better material, or a more focused development process. Someone, somewhere, has to have an opinion and be willing to share it.