Feature: Detroit Red - Playwright Will Power
Will Power was only somewhat aware of Boston’s recent progressive reawakening when he began developing his latest piece, Detroit Red. The playwright, an early pioneer of the hip-hop theatre genre, was interested in exploring a lesser-known period of Malcolm X’s life when he realized how perfectly suited the play and the city were to each other.
“People here have told me that Boston hasn’t necessarily claimed Malcolm X as one of their own,” Power says. “He wasn’t born here and people know him more as a Harlem figure, but if you include his time in prison, he spent 8 years in the Boston area. That’s pretty substantial for someone who lived to 39.”
The play, titled after X’s Boston nickname, zeroes in on the formative years the civil rights’ leaders spent living in Roxbury, which Power believes few people acknowledge.
“I feel like Boston kind of laid the foundation for a lot of [X’s] theories and philosophies later on; his understanding of the world––both the good and the challenges and racism,” he says. “Malcolm was very critical of white liberals, and I think he came across a lot in Boston, because he didn’t know any in Michigan. I think Boston influenced him more than people realize and allowed the stage to be set for him to come onto the world stage.”
Power has spent much of the past two years developing the play at ArtsEmerson, reaching out to Roxbury natives and community leaders to better understand X’s time in the city.
“It’s been a real comprehensive experience, not just, ‘I wrote this piece about Boston, I haven’t been there and I’m showing up for the opening,’” he says. “I was able to talk to a couple of people who knew Malcolm in the 1960s and ‘40s. That’s the kind of thing you can’t do if you’re just doing a show where you come into town for a few weeks and then leave town. It’s the difference between seeing a town from a train window and spending days and months there getting to know people.”
During this immersive research period, Power noticed the community wanted space for a different story during a crowded workshop at Roxbury’s Reggie Lewis Center.
“The feedback was tremendous but there was pushback from some members of the community because they wanted to see his sister Ella in the piece,” Power says.
X’s half-sister Ella Little-Collins had moved to Boston early on and was instrumental in bringing Malcolm and other family members to Boston.
“Even after Malcolm X passed away, she remained a real influence,” he says. “Ella is mentioned in the play, but they wanted to see a black woman onstage, since one of the actors [in Detroit Red] is a white woman. So I said, ‘Why don’t we develop a piece called ‘Ella’ where she can take center stage?’ So that’s what we did, and it’s in Ella’s voice.”
The new piece, titled Ella, was written by community members and is told entirely from Little-Collins’s point of view. Directed by Power, it will play directly following Detroit Red performances.
“It’s totally their response,” Power says. “They wanted to say some things that they felt weren’t said in the play in the way they wanted to. We got a grant and it’s really about, ‘How do you tell a community to empower itself to tell the stories they want?’ I have felt people wanting to look at Malcolm X in Boston again with new eyes.”
Throughout the works’ development, Power says he’s felt the city “starting to have a real ownership of the piece,” saying that, “ultimately, it’s a Boston story.”
“These kinds of conversations are happening now here; I know the first Latinx City Councilmember was just elected,” he says. “The thing that’s fascinating about Boston is that, from an outsider’s perspective, it used to be probably the most progressive cities in America, in terms of race relations. Something happened, maybe because of the school bussing riots or something, but you don’t think of Boston like that anymore. It’s progressive, politically, but it has a reputation of being a little prejudiced.”
The playwright attributes this impulse to reevaluate the city’s racial dynamics to larger issues affecting the country.
“I think, on a national level, it’s because Trump is so far-right and the tone that that’s setting is forcing some areas, even progressive ones, to look at their own racism,” Power says. “It’s a moment that’s happening here. Whether it’s something that’s going to be lasting, where we really go deep and look at how we can repair and heal some of these things, or whether five years from now it’ll go back to the same, I don’t know.”
Detroit Red is playing at the Emerson Paramount Center thru February 16. Get tickets at www.artsemerson.org.
Interview conducted by Juan A. Ramirez for Theatre Talk Boston.