At its core, Desireé York’s new play “The Puppeteer” aspires to the kind of hope embodied by the Obama years – that somehow we can all cross the racial chasm and find mutual understanding.
The play, which follows five generations of African American mothers and daughters from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the present day, has its world premiere Thursday at the Detroit Repertory Theater. The show runs until March 15.
“My goal,” said the 42-year-old playwright, who was afflicted at her home in south Los Angeles, “is to show that at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”
That sentiment is embodied in the title itself, taken from a line in Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Confronted by a white secretary who repeatedly blocked her efforts to get a job interview, the young Angelou swallowed her fury and took a step back, later writing, “I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted as a co-victim of the same puppeteer.”
York, who is interested in theater that advances social change, was struck by the passage. “We are all victims of racism and a patriarchal society,” she said.
“The Puppeteer” was first tested two years ago with a performance at Dayton Playhouse’s FutureFest, a festival dedicated to new and unproduced plays. The Dayton Most Metro Online named “The Puppeteer” the best new work of the city’s entire 2017–18 season.
“It was amazing,” York said, “considering there was only one screening. And I was so welcomed and embraced by the African-American community in Dayton,” he said. -she adds. “I was so grateful that they encouraged me to continue the play. It was very humbling.”
This support was both humbling and affirming for a white playwright who wrote a book about black women. In some settings, particularly universities, York could be dismissed as having peddled “cultural appropriation,” reflecting a political judgment that white people cannot create authentic African-American characters or anyone, for that matter, which is not white.
“I’m not trying to defend myself or take sides,” York said. “All I can talk about is my own personal experience. It’s a personal, intimate story about relationships and the things that we pass on to our children.”
Taken to its extreme, of course, the argument behind “cultural appropriation” suggests that men can only write about men, and that only African Americans can accurately represent the black experience in the United States.
“I think,” said Casaundra Freeman, the play’s African American director, “there’s room for people to just tell human stories. If I were to say to Desireé, ‘Hey – that doesn’t fit not to my lived experience as an African-American,” she would change it.”
Playing the succession of mothers and daughters, all named Constance, is Detroiter Indigo Colbert.
“She’s phenomenal,” Freeman said. “I saw her in a production of Lynn Nottage’s ‘Ruined’ and harassed her. She only had a small role, and her character was shy and soft-spoken. But I couldn’t take my eyes off me. I said, ‘One day I want to work with you.'”
Rounding out the cast are Aaron Kottke, Jayne McLendon and Connie Cowper – who, like Colbert, play multiple roles.
Freeman says that during the play’s story arc, the characters learn about acceptance, love, and forgiveness, as well as the importance of one’s roots.
What is good and good. But does “The Puppeteer” have a happy ending?
“You’ll have to be the judge of that,” York said with a laugh.
Until March 15
Detroit Repertory Theater, 13103 Woodward Wilson, Detroit
8:30 p.m. from Thursday to Friday; 3pm & 8:30pm Sat; 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sun.