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Essay

Tim Sanford on "Detroit"

"When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." –Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone"

There are many possible points of entry into Lisa D'Amour's dazzlingDetroit. It's such an ambitious, multi-layered play, a play I am convinced should be on college syllabi a hundred years from now, assuming colleges still exist. In talking about the play to a group of supporters the other night, I found myself saying, "It's kind of Richard II meets Awake and Sing meets True West meets The Bacchae, with a little Robocop and "The Honeymooners" thrown in for zest." I don't mean to imply it's some kind of post-modern mishmash. It's actually my flip attempt to identify the play's originality and its depth.

The most self-evident (and topical) theme of the play is probably economic. (It's also Lisa's starting point in talking about the play.) We're on the first ring of Detroit's suburbs in the depths of our recession. Ben, a laid-off bank worker, and his wife, Mary, befriend the new couple next door, who turn out to be just out of rehab. The American dream is coming apart like the worn plywood siding on these aging tract houses. Middle class affluence seems illusory, if not downright laughable. It's time to dream new dreams, claim new ideals. (Think of Hennie and Moe in Awake and Sing.) But maybe the future is darker than that. Maybe chaos lurks around the corner. Remember the riots in Detroit? And the setting for Robocop? A debased, futuristic Detroit.

But Detroit does not seem to fear chaos. The tenuously drug-free new neighbors bring a little chaos with them.

At first it seems harmless stuff: collapsing table umbrellas, wobbly patio decks. Shtick, almost. Like an episode of "The Honeymooners." But then we discover they live without furniture and apparently almost without money. They are outcasts, vagabonds, fire-starters. The status quo doesn't have a chance against these strange, wild, charismatic drifters. (Here's where the True West comparison comes in.) But the stripping away process in Detroit seems almost elemental. The play's climactic party does not just devolve into chaos; it rises to the level of ecstasy, like the final throes of the Maenads in The Bacchae. The old order of reason and prosperity is burned away, in a dream state fever of irrationality. The landscape changes.

And here's where I think of Richard II: "Come let us sit upon the ground." Wipe the world clean, take all possessions away, and what are we left with? Ourselves. Each other. Let us find a new America in this. Let a new Renaissance emerge from these ashes. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. You're in for quite a ride.

–Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
July 2012

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