Canvassing The Hood
Ode to a café
Reprised stage play honors the spirit of a Detroit classic
Published: May 9, 2012
Where: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800; thewright.org.
When: May 10-12; doors at 7 p.m. call 202-480-9469 for info; tickets at bit.ly/IJvy7Y.
During its late '90s heyday, Café Mahogany in Harmonie Park was a one-of-a-kind nightspot for jazz, soul and the spoken word, not to mention a choice after-hours hangout for out-of towners ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Erykah Badu. For then-factory worker Dorothy Tene Redmond, it was the place where she first unleashed her creativity.
"Before I went to Café Mahogany, I had never danced in public. Never," Redmond says. "I never let anybody read something I had written. ... But to get on stage at Café Mahogany and be able to express myself — and people clapped and snapped their fingers — that was exciting for me. It gave me an outlet where I could be free and everything was OK."
A 19-year-old working at Detroit's Jefferson North Assembly Plant, Redmond found herself mired in a job where repetition was life and "creative expression" on the line could mean "recall" down the road.
"There is no creative license on the assembly line," Redmond explains. "I can't decide on any given day that this car is going to be the Jeep Jaguar. You have to do the same thing every time. And for a creative person, that's like murder. You're killing me slowly to tell me I have to stay in this box."
But at Café Mahogany, the sometimes conservative landscape of Detroit gave way to a kind of urban oasis — a place where people danced barefoot to jazz and hip hop or walked around with flowers in their hair and beads around their foreheads.
Redmond's nights at Café Mahogany led her to write her first-ever stage play, Mahogany Dreams, which was enthusiastically received during its original run at 1515 Broadway in 2003. Since then, Redmond has gone on to become a professional writer, contributing to the travel, automotive and entertainment articles of 20 magazines around the country and abroad.
Now, almost 10 years later, she's revisiting Mahogany Dreams. The play, which features live music, dance, spoken word and poetry, follows the adventures of Dream Johnson as she chronicles her days at Café Mahogany Coffee House. It's an interactive show where audience members can sign up beforehand to participate in the performance and experience a Café Mahogany-style open mic night.
True to her roots, Redmond keeps the production firmly rooted in all things Motown.
"I'm a native Detroiter, born and raised, and what's so special and wonderful about this show is that it's a play written by a Detroiter about Detroit and everything from the stage to the set design is all from Detroiters and Michiganders," Redmond says.
Rather than relying on the star power behind a big-name stage actor as many friends and mentors suggested, Redmond chose to assemble a powerful cast and crew that highlights a diverse range of Michigan talent.
"It was important to me to highlight the people who are still there fighting the good fight every day," Redmond says, explaining her search for Detroit talent. "I went to a lot of little poetry nights and open mic nights and I found talent there. I went old school."
Her "old school" tactics seem to have paid off. The cast (age range 17 to 45) blends novices and pros. Fluent (three-year host at Café Mahogany) and Cassie Poe (another Café Mahogany poet) perform alongside up-and-coming spoken word artists One Single Rose and Shaun Moore-Bey as well as gospel-singer-turned-actor Ashlee Moss.
Helping the production along is choreography and music by noted up-and-comers Tevyn Cole and Phredley, and sets by Deep Drama Designs group.
Redmond says, "I wanted to do this show as a reminder that Detroit isn't and hasn't always been this big scary place. It's a place where creativity is born out of strife. Detroiters are resilient and when we come together we create something beautiful. That's what it was like at Café Mahogany.and that's what the show's about."
Jackie Rollin is a Metro Times editorial intern.
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