A Detroit high-rise apartment building that was a symbol of glamour, aspiration and racial integration in the 1960s is both the setting and title of Michigan native Brooke Berman’s new play, 1300 Lafayette East, a tale of two women — one white, one black — finding common ground in turbulent times.
It gets a world-premiere run Jan. 29-Feb. 23 in West Bloomfield, MI, in suburban Detroit, in a co-production by Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) and Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company. PTC artistic director Gary Anderson directs. A Plowshares leg of the run is expected to play in the city of Detroit in March; Plowshares is Michigan’s only African-American theatre company.
You might know Berman as the playwright of Hunting and Gathering (Off-Broadway’s Primary Stages), The Triple Happiness (Off-Broadway’s Second Stage) and Until We Find Each Other (Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company), or for her book “No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments.”
The 44-year-old native of suburban Huntington Woods, MI, left the Wolverine State when she was 10 years old. The origins of 1300 Lafayette East come from interviews she conducted with her mother Marilyn in 2004. The Bermans, Harvey and Marilyn, lived at the 30-story 1300 Lafayette East building early in their marriage, before Brooke was born.
“I grew up listening to stories about Detroit,” says New York City-based Berman, who also lived in suburban Southfield, MI, as a child before her family moved to Chicago. “I have fond memories of my family taking me to the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Renaissance Center and the Stage Deli. And I think my love of big cities comes from my mother and from these magical trips downtown with her. My mom felt very strongly about Detroit. She loved her city.”
Located east of downtown Detroit, in Lafayette Park, the 1300 Lafayette rental complex — now a co-op — was populated in the 1960s by middle- and upper-middle-class white and African-American residents, including such Motown recording artists as The Supremes. In the months leading up to the Detroit riots in summer 1967, the play charts the tentative friendship between Elly, a young and lonely Jewish wife, and Reena, an isolated African-American backup singer eager to be a Motown solo artist.
“My mother described the whole thing as an idyllic time both in her own life and in the life of the city,” Berman explains. “I’m interested in the way blacks and whites had economic parity in that building — if you were there, you could afford to be there. And what did that mean for each of those groups? Moreover, when we’re talking about the immigrant experience in America — as we are with Jews — what are the specific signposts that say, ‘You’ve arrived’?”
The play is not a biography of Berman’s late mother, Marilyn, whose history includes time working in public relations for the Detroit Music Hall. “[Elly and Reena] are inventions of my imagination,” Berman stresses. “Both women represent aspects of my own experience and personality. Both…speak to a kind of longing — they want bigger lives than the lives they are currently leading. And they get stuck because they’re overly identified with the men surrounding them.”
Berman says she is “interested in the way class and race work,” and she explores the idea in the clash of her main characters, including Elly’s husband, David, a son of immigrant Jews.
“Within David and Elly’s marriage, where skin color is shared, there’s a difference in class,” Berman explains. “And I love how this difference…the issue of being ‘first generation’ versus ‘second generation’…affects the power dynamic. He is aspiring to be more like her!”
She adds, “I love how David has something in common with Reena — they’re both self-invented. Whereas Elly, who is the second generation and inherently more assimilated, can ‘pass.’ It’s a delicate dance — race, class and gender.”
Berman, who attended early rehearsals of the play and will return for the opening, “did a ton of research” about the 1300 building, Motown artists and the city of Detroit. She read books, watched films and conducted additional interviews, including talking to her maternal grandmother, Ida Lucas, who is 95 and lives in Southfield. One of her mother’s best friends also was quizzed.
A developmental reading of the play by Performance Network in Ann Arbor in summer 2013 included a talk-back forum with residents of 1300 Lafayette East. “I was able to hear their stories and absorb the information,” she says. The current world-premiere draft of 1300 Lafayette East, at the suggestion of director Anderson, also includes new material about the issue of police brutality against African Americans in 1967.
“The play has grown tremendously,” Berman says of the recent process, adding that she plans to attend the second leg of the run in March, when Plowshares Theatre Company presents the drama at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. (Dates will be announced.) “Gary felt it was crucial to bring the issue of police brutality into the story. And thus, the sub-plot of these cops and the ‘Big Four’ units that used to patrol the city, beating the crap out of blacks.”
Via email, Berman fielded a slew of additional questions about her new play, how she works, her past and her passions.
Did your parents take you to the theatre? What was your exposure to theatre as a kid?
Brooke Berman: My mother always took me to the theatre. She worked in public relations for the Detroit Music Hall when I was a child, and she loved the theatre, the opera, the symphony and the ballet. Once we moved to Chicago, we had season tickets to both The Goodman and to American Ballet Theater. When I was little, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t jump onstage with the performers; I wanted to be on stage so badly.
When did it occur to you that telling stories for the stage might be interesting?
Brooke Berman: Like many playwrights, I started as an actor. I studied acting and dance through high school and college, and always assumed I’d be some kind of performer. A stint with Anne Bogart at Trinity Rep Theater in Providence, RI, when I was 20 showed me that I could also write for the theatre, and while at first I pursued both, in time it became clear that writing was a better path for me. I often used audition monologues that I’d written, and casting directors asked, “Who wrote that?” My first play was produced professionally in New York when I was 23 years old — by Naked Angels — and that started the ball rolling.
You reference the Supremes in 1300 Lafayette East. The Supremes really did live there, right?
Brooke Berman: The Supremes really did live there.
Can you share your research process for the play? Research about the history of the building, for example? How much did you know when you began writing the play?
Brooke Berman: I knew very little apart from my mom’s stories. I did a ton of research both into the building itself and into the origins of Motown. Later, through Carla Milarch of Performance Network, I connected with Dr. Matthew Countryman at [the University of Michigan] who recommended the book, “Whose Detroit?” I read that. I watched films. I looked at pictures. I interviewed my grandmother and one of my mother’ s best friends.
And then, in a more general sense, I used some of my own experiences both with the [Rodney] King riots in 1992 and the grassroots voter registration I did that summer with a non-profit called Third Wave Foundation. Led by Rebecca Walker, we registered voters in mostly disenfranchised communities across the U.S. during July of 1992. Then, of course, I was in lower Manhattan during 9-11, so I imagined that watching your city burn might be somewhat like that, certainly once there were soldiers and curfews.
You interviewed your mom about her life before she died. Did you know you were collecting the building blocks for a play when you interviewed her?
Brooke Berman: I’d just read Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful novel “Middlesex” and was thinking a lot about Detroit and about the Jewish experience — which seemed to mirror the [novel’s] Greek experience to some extent — and about various groups of people in what seems like an extraordinary city. [Detroit was] one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad!
Growing up in Detroit, I always went to integrated schools. It wasn’t until we moved to Chicago that I found myself the only Jew in school and standing next to, perhaps, the only black in school — something about Detroit felt more balanced to me.
And around this time, I was at a play reading at New Dramatists in New York City (where I was a resident playwright for seven years) and Diana Ross’ daughter Rhonda happened to be there. Rhonda is roughly my age, and we have friends in common and although I don’t know her very well, I turned to her and remarked that our mothers had once been neighbors in the 1300 building in downtown Detroit. We both remarked how funny that was, what a small world, etc. — but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I called my mom and asked if she could tell me stories about that building. I transcribed our conversations and kept them. At first, I thought the story would be cinematic (I mean, how incredible to watch the city burn from your living room window) but after awhile, I realized that I was more interested in the relationship between the women than anything else — and that kind of story is often best told on stage.
There are natural conflicts and tensions built into your play — black and white, Jewish and gentile, city and suburbs, to say nothing of the common ground (loneliness and isolation) that Elly and Reena share. When you’re writing your plays, is there one thing that consistently leaps out at you most prominently at the beginning of the process — characters, theme, location, an “event”?
Brooke Berman: I’ve been very influenced by Anna Deavere Smith’s idea that character is communicated through language, through precise linguistic patterns and vocal rhythms. And I suppose, as the child of a musician, that I “hear” language as music. So I construct plays through language, through specific words and phrases. Then characters. Then conflict. Then whole stories emerge.
How much of 1300 Lafayette East is accurately the origin story of the woman that your mother would become? Housewife Elly helps promote Motown-hungry singer Reena, and Elly has a gift for PR. And your mom went into PR. Was your mom as isolated, lonely and voraciously curious as Elly is? And was she culturally sheltered?
Brooke Berman: The only bits that come from my actual mother are her language about the building, meaning: I used her words as the palette and I invented everything else. She told stories about the decorator upstairs (“He got the penthouse”), the man in the park who she imagined was a spy (“I was sure they were exchanging dossiers”), Diana Ross in the package room, a doorman named Thurston who used to be a boxer. Yes, my mother did go into PR — but she’s far from Elly. My mother also got divorced, worked in fashion, remarried and moved to Chicago.
Was there a “Reena” in your mother’s life? Is Reena a composite, or wholly fictive? Did you imagine, “What if my mom became friends with Motown singer…?”
Brooke Berman: Both women are inventions of my imagination, although Reena is loosely based on singer Tammi Terrell (who did not live at 1300). My mother was a concert pianist before she lived in that building — and thus wholly unlike Elly.
1300 Lafayette East was read in the Fireside New Play Festival at Performance Network in Ann Arbor in summer 2013. What did you learn from that experience, or how did the play grow?
Brooke Berman: I was present in New York for a similar workshop at the Jewish Plays Project, directed by Daniella Topol, and I rewrote most of the second half of the play then.
I wasn’t able to be present for the Fireside Festival — we were in the process of moving from Los Angeles back to New York — so I listened to most of it via speaker phone and Skype. The important piece of that experience was the feedback from post-reading talkbacks. I listened to them (as I said, via speaker phone) and [Performance Network associate artistic director] Carla Milarch recorded everything. Later, when I began this current draft, I watched DVD footage of both the readings and the talkback with residents at the 1300 building.
Can you name some playwrights that have influenced you over the years?
Brooke Berman: Maria Irene Fornes, with whom I studied and assisted. Spalding Gray. My teachers at Juilliard — Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. Tony Kushner. Anna Deavere Smith. Pina Bausch — not a playwright but definitely a theatre-maker. Ditto The Wooster Group. Paula Vogel. And, of course, Chekhov. The older I get, the more I just want to stick with him.
You can learn more about the playwright at BrookeBerman.net.