This Tuesday, a diverse community coalition will announce ambitious plans to transform northwest Detroit’s Old Redford community into the city's newest arts and entertainment district.
The event takes place at the historic Redford Theatre, one of America’s most successful independents, which regularly attracts large audiences to an eclectic mix of film and live events.
The volunteer-run nonprofit may be best known for its 1928 pipe organ, but it also specializes in launching careers. I have premiered three award-winning feature films here — Waterwalk, Pilot Error and most recently Coming Up For Air.
All of these dramas showcase prominent Michigan actors, as well as some of my favorite locations around the state. With its classic “oriental” motif, this restored Detroit landmark is the perfect place to build momentum for films that go on to play nationally and win dozens of festival awards.
Last year, after I finished adapting Old Heart — a bittersweet World War II love story by South Haven writer Peter Ferry — I checked in with the Redford’s Steve Overstreet, who recommended Karl King, a director well known in the city for his urban plays. Among his hits, There Goes The Neighborhood is about a white suburban couple forced to live in a slumlord’s apartment complex in a black inner city neighborhood.
Karl fell in love with Ferry’s novel, just like I had. Old Heart tells the story of 85-year-old African American GI Tom Johnson. Johnson rejects his family’s plan to move him to assisted living, disappearing on a flight to the Netherlands. There he is determined to reconnect with the Jewish translator who helped him smuggle food and supplies from the liberated south to Dutch residents starving behind Nazi lines near the end of World War II.
Karl is the grandson of legendary Detroit band leader, composer, arranger Maurice King. King led the Motown Revue on national tours and discovered Gladys Knight when she was 12 years old. As a kid, Karl attended rehearsals with the Jackson Five, the Supremes and other Motown luminaries.
King directs Old Heart with a special interest in the love story between an African American GI from Detroit and Sarah van Pragg, a young Jewish woman who had just emerged from four years of hiding from the Nazis in a farmhouse cellar.
I have a Jewish great grandmother, Matilda Thomas Brazier and my father went to a Birmingham synagogue.
For King, who lives in Redford Township, Old Heart has become the logical next step in a career that began when he started writing poetry at Detroit’s Mark Twain Elementary.
“My timing was a little bit off. When I was growing up no one wanted to read poetry on street corners. If rap was happening then, I would have been a star.”
King’s big break came in 2002 when he won a writing contest sponsored by the WB 20 network. After writing for television and film, he transitioned into theater, producing his first angst free comedy hit for Detroit audiences in 2008. His early shows attracted crowds at venues like Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum and the Masonic Temple.
As his plays flourished, King’s reputation became a draw, regularly attracting loyal audiences of 500 or more. With Old Heart, his first interracial play, the director is echoing his pioneering grandfather.
“He traveled during World War II as the composer, arranger and producer of America’s first integrated female group, the Sweethearts of Rhythm. They entertained troops nationwide.”
Directing a play focused on a mixed-race couple has given King an opportunity to explore the hidden history of World War II. Old Heart’s Lieutenant Tom Johnson arrives in southern Holland as part of the mostly African American Red Ball Express team that bravely trucked weapons, fuel and supplies east from Normandy for Patton’s Army following D Day.
Driving past enemy fire in vehicles loaded with sand bags to protect their convoy from land mines, these soldiers drove on 36 hour shifts. At times they navigated gas trucks through burning towns to keep the Allies supplied on their march toward Germany.
“This was new territory for me,” says King, “a story of a little known integrated unit central to winning the war.”
Denied the GI bill housing and education benefits that went to white combat veterans, Johnson wants to begin married life with Sarah in the Netherlands as an honored American liberator. She wants to become an American war bride, despite the fact that mixed race marriages were illegal in some states.
Unable to find common geographic ground, their romance craters. Sixty years later, Johnson flies back to the Netherlands determined to reconnect with Sarah. This is where Ferry’s story begins — as Johnson’s adult children desperately try to track him down and bring him home to assisted living at Sunset Shores.
For King, working with an integrated cast mirrors a deeply personal story that sheds light on the bigotry that has surrounded interracial love.
“I have a grandfather who was chased out of town a century ago for having a relationship with a white woman.”
King is now deep into rehearsal with an intriguing Michigan cast — Ed Gaines as Old Tom, Jakari Carson as Young Tom, and Melanie Lamrock as Sarah.
“The Redford is an anchor venue and I’m glad to see my own neighborhood becoming a showplace for emerging artists.”
Old Heart’s world premiere is May 14 (7:00) and May 15 (4:00) at the Redford Theatre.
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