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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: Sept. 22, 2012 at 5:18 p.m.
Hamtramck – a town almost completely surrounded by its much larger neighbor, Detroit – was once home to Southeast Michigan's Polish community. In 1970, 90 percent of its residents were of Polish ancestry. Today, the bustling 'burb is now the state's most internationally diverse city, with large numbers of residents coming from numerous Asian and Middle Eastern countries – all of whom live in very close proximity to a smattering of African-Americans, Latinos and folks with family ties to an assortment of European countries.
It's also home to the feisty Planet Ant Theatre, which examines the community's racial, cultural and religious differences with the world premiere of Margaret Edwartowski's "Hamtown Races." The result is a near-flawless production.
Edwartowski, long known as one of the reigning queens of Detroit's improv community, has earned a glowing reputation as an up-and-coming playwright. Beginning with her initial one-act drama "Snowbound" in early 2010, it's been a pleasure watching her skills and storytelling abilities improve with every new script she writes. Thanks (I suspect) to many years of improv, Edwartowski has developed a keen ear for dialogue and a knack for creating imaginative, yet believable characters – and both are at a peak in "Hamtown Races."
But of equal importance, Edwartowski proves with this production that she fears nothing and will take the necessary risks to tell the story she wants and needs to tell in the most complete and honest way possible. So if you're easily offended or live a politically correct life, then take this as a strong hint: "Hamtown Races" may not be for you.
For the rest of us, though, Edwartowski has crafted a warm and heartfelt tale about what can happen when people of significantly different backgrounds mix together at a small Hamtramck restaurant owned by Noor (Amy Probst), a Lebanese immigrant. It's a clash of cultures, as regular patrons Dobry (Patrick O'Connor Cronin), a Polish immigrant, and Jimmy (Rico Bruce Wade), an African-American on disability, enjoy themselves teasing and taunting Matt (Stephen Blackwell), the white-bread owner of a tee-shirt silk-screening company across the street – and who has an obvious crush on Lolia (Britta Peele), Noor's beautiful daughter.
Storm clouds roll in with the arrival of Noor's long-estranged husband, Kassim (Mike Eshaq), a rich banker from Lebanon who is displeased to find his wife and daughter working and living in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. Nor is he thrilled to stumble upon Lolia and Matt kissing after a night of drinking and partying.
But that's the least of the problems Noor and her family will face over the next few days.
Edwartowski's blend of quirky characters and realistic dialogue might lead one to believe she penned much of her script by eavesdropping on Hamtramck citizens as they came and went from any of Hamtramck's dining establishments – it's that natural. And they're vividly brought to life by a director who understood how to both pace the show and allow his actors to fully invest themselves in their characters.
Director Mike McGettigan has long been a favorite of mine because of his unique perspective on comedy and his inventive nature – and here he's at the top of his game. Much more traditional than some of his past work, McGettigan gets high marks for finding the small nuggets in Edwartowski's script to build off of and have fun with – a brief look, a minor change in a facial expression, a pause in the action – all of which pay off great dividends by allowing us, the audience, to believe we actually ARE in the restaurant watching the story unfold before us.
His eye for casting, though, is among the show's greatest assets.
The adorable Probst has a gentle sweetness about her that works quite well as Noor, matched by the innocence Cronin gives to Dobry. (Always an audience favorite, it's fun to watch Cronin's comedic mind at work when faced with an opportunity to have some unexpected fun when something goes awry, which happened early in the performance on opening night. I suspect some may not even have noticed it, but that quick, sly grin couldn't be missed by those of us familiar with his work.)
Blackwell, a tall and lanky actor, always manages to physically and emotionally become whatever character he plays, and his Matt is no different. His total control of his body, face, voice and movements tell you everything you need to know about what this character is thinking at any given moment.
And Peele, still a student studying theater at Wayne State University, acquits herself rather well as the least experienced actress among a team of veteran, top-notch thespians.
Two performances, though, merit special notice.
Missing from Detroit-area stages for far too long has been Eshaq, a filmmaker and actor whose memorable performances include two monologues in "Bogosian V(5): The Christening" at The Abreact in 2009. Once again, his focus and intensity are palpable – and he dominates the stage every time he makes an entrance.
Likely the bravest performance of the night is given by Wade. In this politically correct age, it's been said that the TV series "All in the Family" would never make it on the air today. Wade's Jimmy – a black man who sees himself the victim of racism, but fails to acknowledge his own flaws – is a direct descendent of Archie Bunker's, with strong views and the words to match. While I suspect some in future audiences may be offended by the repeated use of the much feared and dreaded "n word," I also suspect all of us know and love someone just like Jimmy – and the result is one of the most honest and sincere portraits of a "warts and all" human being to hit the stage in quite some time. (He's also damn funny!)
Katie Orwig's set design suggests a familiarity with local Coney Island and Middle Eastern restaurants, although missing from the wall is the required operating license from the local municipality. And Kevin Barron's lights serve the show well.
While it's been said many times in recent years that discussions about race and cultural differences are impossible to have when tensions among the various factions are so high – and when politicians use the topics to enflame their bases – Edwartowski's "Hamtown Races" proves how live theater can help stimulate the conversation through laughter and plenty of food for thought that can be taken home and digested later.
SHOW DETAILS: "Hamtown Races" continues at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, Friday-Saturday through Oct. 13, plus Sunday, Sept. 30 & Oct. 7, and Tuesday, Oct. 2. Running time: 120 minutes. Tickets: $20. For information: 313-365-4948 or www.planetant.com.
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