"The Heidelberg Project: Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mind."
8 p.m. Fri-Sat, also 4 p.m. Sun. Oct. 23 and 30
Through Oct. 30
4126 Third St., Detroit
$20 (Students $15)
1 hour, 25 minutes
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 4 p.m. Sunday performances on Oct. 23 and 30
Call 313-671-6096 for tickets.
Two men roll a boulder across the stage â€“ shades of Sisyphus eternally pushing his burden up a mountain only to have it come rolling back down again. Thus opens â€œThe Heidelberg Project: Squatting in the Circle of the Elder Mindâ€? written by Ron Allen and directed by John Jakary. This first scene sets the stage that this will be more a metaphorical tale of the artistâ€™s struggle rather than a neat, straightforward biography of its subject, artist Tyree Guyton.
And thus at merely age 50, Guyton has attained mythological status. Like Jesus, Dorothy, and Batman, Guytonâ€™s life by way of Allen serves as an archetype for posing universal questions of temptation, quests, and heroism, along with the aforementioned Sisyphusâ€™ never-ending struggle.
The play occurs in a single moment in time â€“ one of great reflection. Like Christ on the cross in â€œThe Last Temptationâ€?, Guyton (played with boundless enthusiasm and intensity by Oliver Pookrum) is at a crucial turning point â€“ internally questioning his reasons to make art. On one side there are the forces urging him to give up from the unrelenting taunting of the chorus and the temptations offered by the official (a devilish and playful Sandra Hines â€“ at times a politician and at others a drug dealer â€“ for Allen, always representative of all the evils of our society). On the other side are hope and encouragement in the form of Guytonâ€™s Grandfather Mackey (a solemn Nelson Jones, Jr.) who in some of the quieter moments in the plays offers heart to heart lessons about truth and art. And there is also Jenenne â€“ a burst of love and comfort to soothe and lift up the embattled artistâ€™s â€“ a partner to soldier on not quite so alone. (Captivating and sexily performed by Walonda Lewis â€“ who plays an entire trinity from lover to mother to child.)
Whenever it seems Guyton has reached a summit and found peace, it all comes crashing down on him again. Itâ€™s a constant struggle with few moments of calmness and comfort. Itâ€™s only in the ending (which I wonâ€™t spoil here except to say that it is one of the most perfect and unexpected scenes possible on stage) that the story hits a lasting uplifting note and makes the struggle to get there seem all the sweeter.
Allenâ€™s dialogue is a non-stop raging stream of consciousness from the cleverly alliterative to dreamtime warriors meet quantum new-age techno speak. Perfect, perhaps for a vision of Detroit that says â€œyou donâ€™t have to be crazy to live here, but it helps.â€? And while it is lyrical (to great effect when sung such as in a jump-roping scene choreographed by Marnita Dickerson), the words ask to be read, and can become a frustrating mouthful to decipher and decode, leaving you trying to keep up with what just went down. This can take the viewer out of the play, and one wonders that no matter how brilliant and deep the words might be (and they are), perhaps a little less could be more. However, if you can accept that you donâ€™t need to get everything and absorb the mood as one might the details in an impressionistic painting, it works and envelops the audience in a powerful emotional atmosphere.
Director Jakaryâ€™s production is a carefully orchestrated continual state of chaos as befits the struggle within Guytonâ€™s mind. As mad as it gets, Jakary never lets the play fly apart. Credit too must go to the entire cast, who following the lead of Pookrum (who seems as if heâ€™s ready to play another archetype â€“ Superman â€“ someday soon), keep up with Allenâ€™s dialogue and maintain a tremendous level of energy the whole time. Jakary asks a lot out of all of them and they seem to delight in the challenge. Imaginative video titles by Jason Flowers introduce each segment and the integration of video with the live action adds to the complexity of the play and also helps it stay grounded. With utter simplicity designer Troy Richardâ€™s set captures a sense of the decrepitness that was Heidelberg Street. Over the duration of the play, the bleak landscape evolves as Guytonâ€™s actual artwork is continually added to the overall set. Itâ€™s the surest sign that things are progressing in a positive direction and quite beautiful.
In the end, this is less about Guyton the man, but more about the primal struggle to make art and the search for why â€œArtâ€? is worth doing for all of us. If perhaps this play does not capture the details of its subject, it does embody his energy and strength of conviction, and offer a lesson why despite the continual setbacks, art is always worth doing. (And if you need more reasons to go than all of the above, itâ€™s a play about an internationally known Detroiter in Detroit! Go see it!) â€“ Nick Sousanis
For art stories on Guyton see our Archives:
For more on Guyton and the Heidelberg, check their website here).
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