Encore Michigan

Zettelmaier’s ‘Channel Cat’ world premiere’s at Detroit Rep

Review November 10, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–It’s amazing the stuff that can come out between an African American BBQ master and a chubby white Southern sheriff in a rib joint.

In Channel Cat, a world premiere play from Joe Zettlemaier at The Detroit Rep, BBQ proprietor Otis Cully (Lynch Travis) is close friends with Sheriff Clay Brooks (Ryan Carlson) despite the animosity toward the police by Otis’s daughter Ada (Kayla Von). The two have a secret, and the Sheriff, who has bene diagnosed with a heart condition, has come to eat fried Okra and discuss the secret.

Directed by Harry Wetzel, Channel Cat [the title refers to the most prolific catfish in North America that eats whatever it sees and grows to thirty pounds in some cases], explores the transactional relationship people of different social and economic stripes can have, even when they are of different races in a place and time when there is more separating white from people of color than binding them together. At a point in the story, Ada refers to brooks as a “Channel Cat.”

Travis does a very good and necessary job of filling up the stage with his strong voice and presence. We can see early that the whole story is going to turn on Otis. Carlson as Brooks illuminates the southern law man who we come to find was the one white kid in his public high school. Zettelmaier is generous with the Sheriff, giving him several laugh moments for the audience. Ms. Von as Ada contrasts nicely to the two men; her Millennial generation sensibilities driving her to law school so she can represent black men wronged by the criminal justice system and cracker Southern sheriffs.

Wetzel’s set of Cully’s BBQ is authentic looking. It’s a home away from home for a lot of the Bayou community, though they’ll never know what really goes on inside the walls. Thomas Schraeder provides lighting design, and Burr Huntington designed sound. Sheree Colucelli’s does costumes.

Zettelmaier is known for his research into history feeding his plays. It could be that he got the kernels of Channel Cat from a newspaper article about real events. The story certainly has the feel of a true story. That said, there is a feeling like the playwright could and should go deeper with this story that shared by the characters, and the ending seems to lack decisiveness.

The three characters have history around a secret. Before the evening is over, they will share a brand new secret that will change their lives again forever. It goes to show you that the life events that bind people are often the ones that other people will never know about.