Encore Michigan

‘The Puppeteer’ at Detroit Rep reminds us the more things change the more they stay the same

Review January 12, 2020 David Kiley

DETROIT—There is a long standing metaphor of God being a puppeteer. In the case of The Puppeteer, a new-ish play written by playwright Desiree York and playing at The Detroit Repertory Theatre, this play seems less Godly than about institutional racism and white privilege that has gripped America for hundreds of years up to today and this minute.

Constance, played by Indigo Colbert, is our focus and is an African American woman who we see across generations, starting with the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s and up to today. All the women of this family are named Constance, and each faces scorn and endures prejudice and social chains across the decades.

It is impossible not to notice that Ms. York is both white and young when taking about this play, though I did not know that until after the performance. She is no stranger to the material or subject. She, in fact, won the 2015 Kennedy Center  Rosa Parks Playwriting Award. Being white, of course, does not preclude a playwright from putting the black experience to paper. But there is a thread throughout the play and the dialogue of the Constances that feels one step removed from the heart of what I believe or imagine, as a white man, to be the pain and struggle of young black women in the 1920s and the present day.

There are strong moments of dialogue and built scenes, but it’s bumpy and at times feels overly filtered. Ms. Colbert has a range of characters to play, from a cub singer in the 20s who is called a whore by the fiancée of a man visiting her dressing room and bed to housekeepers and finally a woman in contemporary times looking to break the chains inherited from four generations of  Constances.

The metaphor of the Puppeteer is delivered literally on stage for each generation of Constance as a scene transition, with Constance standing limp like a puppet at rest, and her cast mates changing her wardrobe for her in semi darkness. It feels a bit forced, and like a tap on the shoulder to the audience and whisper, “Pssssst. Get it. The Puppeteer.”

I saw the play on opening night, so there were a few hiccups and a little stiffness in places. Casaundra Freeman’s direction is quite good as the play demands a lot of knitting by the director to see that the generations depicted hold the story together. And that it does.

Aaron Kottke plays the men in the Constances’ lives starting with a privileged dandy calling upon his jazz singer object of his affection to a cruddy white boss who steps on Constance’s neck as she applies for a job in decades later–the grand daughter of the first Constance. Jayne McLendon plays a series of characters from the nervous uptight would-be fiancée who confronts jazz singer Constance to an office worker whose husband has run out on her. Connie Cowper plays one character, Ms. Evans, who is the would be mother-in-law of Constance #4. She interacts with two Constances, her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter, and her journey of acceptance of both is hopeful.

The supporting actors are splendid in carrying off their characters. And Ms. York cleverly makes the characters connected over the generations, though it seems like they actually don’t remember their connections in their earlier lives…or Ms. York has written them to be universal. Either way, it is a clever thread for the audience to see pulled.

Ms. Colbert has a demanding job on stage, maintaining the similarities generation to generation while also paying attention to the differences. It’s a dance that she does well to execute.

Harry Wetzel created a set that works well across the decades. Thomas Schraeder designed lighting. Mary Copenhagen does a ver good job of navigating the costumers from the 1920 to present day. Burr Huntington designed sound.

If there is something missing from this fairly recent script, it is a certain depth and grit. And there are some stilted passages of dialogue that sounds more speech-y than like people talking. This is gritty gritty subject material and often feels less real and unfiltered than it could be.

All that said, The Puppeteer is a story that hits the brain and heart. Just when we thought we were making real progress with a two-term black President, it feels like that experience for the country was like feeding the homeless at Thanksgiving and Christmas and forgetting about the other weeks of the year. After all, we have a black HUD Secretary, from Detroit no less, doing the bidding of a vastly white administration to roll back civil rights and human rights in fair housing policies. We have states doing all they can to kick minorities off voting rolls, and the Voting Rights Act has been nullified.

It’s not just that the more things change, the more the stay the same. It’s that the more things change, the more hateful and strategic white privilege can become. Reminding us of that in art is a very worthy experience.