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Master Storyteller Talks About Staged Readings of 'Palmer Park'

Rives Collins discusses a play about a Detroit neighborhood’s valiant fight for civil rights

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January 13, 2010 | by Judy Moore
Watch scenes from Northwestern University's production of "Palmer Park," part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on the Evanston campus. Video produced by Matt Paolelli
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Master storyteller Rives Collins talks about staged readings of "Palmer Park," a play about a Detroit neighborhood's valiant fight to maintain racial integration during one of the nation's worst race riots.

Part of Northwestern University's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, the readings on Jan. 17 and 18 of Tony Award-nominated playwright Joanna McClelland Glass' "Palmer Park" were presented by the Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University. Each reading, which contained adult content, was followed by a post-show discussion with the creative team.

While thousands of white residents fled from Detroit during the late 1960s to early 1970s, some middle-class districts such as Palmer Park fought to maintain racial integration in their neighborhoods and schools.

Directed by Collins, chair of Northwestern's theatre department, the readings were a result of the Big Ten University theater initiative. The Big Ten theater chairs gather annually to swap ideas and share best practices.

"In addition to playing each other in sports, we decided that all the Big Ten universities would explore the same play," said Collins. "We chose 'Palmer Park' because the dialogue crackles, the characters are well-drawn and the play asks questions that don't have easy answers."

Judy Moore's Q&A with Rives Collins follows:

Explain the tie-in to Northwestern's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

Since the theme of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is "leadership, service and community," it was natural to blend the "Palmer Park" readings with the other programming scheduled for Northwestern's day of observance. It is a provocative play that is a marvelous catalyst for civic dialogue.

What makes "Palmer Park" provocative?

"Palmer Park" takes an honest look at racial integration. It embraces complexity and asks questions that don't have easy answers. It examines problems from multiple points of view and says a lot of things that are uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In addition to being a play about diversity and class, it is also very funny and very human. It is a slice of our history that is based on a historical time and place and real characters. Although it takes place 40 years ago, it feels remarkably contemporary.

Why did you decide to do the stage readings of "Palmer Park"?

At the fall 2008 meeting of the Big Ten theater chairs, we decided that all the universities of the Big Ten would explore the same play. We found "Palmer Park," an unpublished work by award-winning playwright Joanna McClelland Glass. After we discussed it, we wrote to Ms. Glass as a consortium, asking for her permission. She was thrilled and supportive of all 11 schools engaging with her script, in one form or another. Michigan State and Ohio State have already staged it, and the other Big Ten schools will be staging "Palmer Park" on their campuses this year.

What is a staged reading?

A staged reading is a formal reading of a work on a bare stage in front of an audience.

The actors either read from scripts in their hands or on a music stand, and there are no costumes or stage sets. The actors give voice to the playwright's words and create characters. Someone also reads the actual stage directions.

Is a staged reading as captivating for audiences as a regular performance?

There is an art to giving a play a great reading. We are making certain that the language of this play sings. Since a lot of human dignity comes forward in this play, we intend to transport audience members to a place of full emotional intensity.

Who delivered the staged readings of "Palmer Park"?

Eleven Northwestern undergraduate and graduate student actors who gave their time, energy and talent to a reading of this play as part of their service to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of observance.

Who participated in the post-show discussion that followed each "Palmer Park" reading?

In addition to the "Palmer Park" creative team comprised of the Northwestern student actors, student stage manager and student dramaturge, Professor Harvey Young, an award-winning Northwestern faculty member, was the discussion facilitator Jan. 18 at the Josephine Louis Theater. Young holds joint appointments in theatre, African-American studies, performance studies and radio/television/film. In addition, he is a renowned historian. I was the facilitator for the Jan. 17 reading at the Mussetter-Struble Theater.

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