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Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Delicate Balance of Palmer Park


Palmer Park
By Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Featuring Dan Chameroy, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh, Nigel Shawn Williams

In 1967 there were race riots in 59 cities in the United States, the worst of which were in the Detroit civil rebellion, or the 12th Street Riot. Shortly thereafter over 100,000 Caucasians left the city in an exodus dubbed “white flight.” As a result, property values plummeted. As funding for school boards was tied to property taxes, schools and their students soon suffered from overcrowding and under-funding. However, some upper-middle-class districts had been succeeding in racial integration in both their neighbourhoods and schools: Palmer Park is the story of one such neighbourhood that tried – but ultimately failed – to uphold this ideal.

The story is much more complicated than this brief introduction, and Joanna McClelland Glass’ play does not gloss over the very real, very volatile issues of this era. No solution is offered, no happy ending is tied off in a sweet red bow. The events preceding the play are still very much retained in the memories of a living generation, and Ms. Glass deftly navigates the issues without judgment, pity or moralizing.

That being said, every person in the audience for this play will hear and see something different, depending on their own experiences. For me, white and born after the events, it is a revelation of my own naivety; for someone with memory of the events themselves it may evoke all the emotional turmoil of the time; for someone who is black, it may stir up a lot more than that. During one monologue by Dan Chameroy, who plays the white Martin Townsend, I suddenly realized that his reasonable, impassioned plea for the ideal of integration would sound completely different – and possibly arrogant – to someone with less pasty skin than I, who was overworked and whose children were suffering in an under-funded school. As such, it is a powerful piece of theatre.

Mr. Chameroy and Kelli Fox play the idealistic and na├»ve Townsends with just the right amount of nervous confidence and compassion as they learn more and more about the realities their neighbours, the African-American Hazletons, must endure discrimination on a day-to day basis. As the Hazletons, Yanna McIntosh and Nigel Shawn Williams are both outstanding as they (mostly) patiently explain to their new friends the lay of the land – for instance, that unless blacks are well-dressed, they will not be seated in road-side restaurants. The look of incredulous pity on Ms. McIntosh’s face as this is explained to Kate Townsend is heartbreaking.

Also living in the neighbourhood of 65% whites and 35% blacks are the Rifkins (Brad Rudy and Severn Thompson), the Marshalls (Kevin Hanshard and Lesley Ewen) and the Lamonts (David Keeley and Jane Spidell). Kevin Hanshard doubles as the beleaguered Alvin Wilkinson, who is determined to ship the extra students from a poor nearby school to the relatively wealthy Palmer Park school; his just rebuttal of Martin Townsend’s plea is firm and leaves the audience wondering: how was such a dilemma ever to be solved fairly?

Palmer Park is not all about social issues – it is as much about the things these neighbours had in common as it was in exploring their differences: the way they grew as a community and in friendship. (The baseball scene is the most memorable example of this and is pure joy to watch – a mad three or four minutes of rapid-fire, hooting dialogue from the men as they cheer on the World Series winning Detroit Tigers of 1968). It makes their subsequent departure from the neighbourhood all the more poignant.

Although the characters discuss what it is to be prejudiced and they discover perspectives on race that they had never recognized before, Palmer Park never becomes preachy, for all the education it provides. It is an illuminating play, directed with sensitivity by Ron (OJ) Parson and is definitely worth the price of admission. Palmer Park continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 21.

2 comments:

  1. were discussing this play in my theater class right now and I just wanted to thank you for this analysis because it has really helped me appreciate the play. Good work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank-you very much for your kind words!

    ReplyDelete

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