Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre Company, founded by the town’s resident movie/TV/Broadway star Jeff Daniels, opened in 1991 with the aim of “growing” and producing new plays alongside American classics.
Giving voice to the experience of living in the Midwest is certainly part of that picture – “When I started out in theater in the 1970s, I thought all plays were about neurotic people living in New York,” said longtime Rose artistic director Guy Sanville – but sometimes the Rose’s roster of plays gets even more specific, focusing on Michigan’s history and challenges.
The Rose’s current professional season, for example, features new work from three Michigan playwrights (Daniels is one, along with David MacGregor and Jeff Duncan), and two of those three are telling Michigan stories: “Flint,” the Rose’s current production, which is set in the time just before the town made national headlines in 2016 because of its water crisis; and “Willow Run,” which tells a tale of a handful of women who went to work at Ypsilanti’s bomber plant during World War II.
The seed for “Willow Run” was planted when Sanville watched an hour-long show for young people (“Rosie the Riveter”) that Duncan wrote for Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater. Sanville approached Duncan about developing the show into a full-length play geared toward grown-ups, and Duncan “was excited by the idea and went to work,” said Sanville.
After the Rose workshopped Duncan’s new play for two weeks, it presented a staged reading of “Willow Run” – about how an unlikely friendship forms between a prejudiced white woman from Tennessee and a black woman from Arkansas, both of whom moved to Michigan to work at the bomber plant – that drew more than 200 people. “The reaction was stunning, in terms of the nostalgia around it, and the way people reacted to the story,” Sanville said. “We thought, ‘If we can do this much with it in two weeks, what can we do with it in a year?’”
You can find out for yourself on June 14, when “Willow Run” opens at the Rose in previews.
Daniels’ new drama “Flint,” meanwhile, focuses on two neighboring couples – one white, one black – who’d lived in the town back in its heyday, when well-paid General Motors jobs were plentiful. The two men, Mitchell and Eddie, had worked together as an auto line worker and a line manager, respectfully; yet since GM pulled up stakes in Flint, primarily in the late 1990s, Mitchell has come to scrape out a living now by working as a sporting goods clerk at WalMart, and his wife drives the church bus for added income; Eddie, however, is slipping into alcoholism and still holding out for a job that’s more “dignified,” despite the fact that his family’s on the verge of losing their home.
“I’ve gotten more mail on this show than on any we’ve ever done,” said Sanville. “ … Doing this play was a hell of a risk, for a lot of reasons, and every one of the Flint people who have bothered to write or say something about the show have said things like, ‘I recognize that house,’ or ‘I grew up in that kitchen,’ or ‘My father, my uncle, my brother and I suffered through the decline of that city and the loss of the industry that supported it for so long.’ Beforehand, people had been very apprehensive about it. I had conversations with people who said, ‘Who does Jeff think he is?’ and ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ But now, many of those same people have come back and said, ‘Wow. Good job.’”
These plays are now part of a Rose tradition – of telling Michigan’s stories – that most firmly took root when Daniels’ play “Escanaba in da Moonlight” premiered in 1995, and the company found itself with a hit on its hands.
Sanville believes that part of that comedy’s enduring success stems from the fact that it brought people who wouldn’t normally see a play into the theater.
“I was born in Escanaba,” said Sanville. “And one of the nights when that show was playing – it’s a night I’ll never forget – we were in a smaller theater then, but still, one whole section was just relatives of mine who had come down to see the show. And it was the first time they’d ever seen people they knew, and the place they were from, on a stage. We’re getting that response right now with ‘Flint,’ too. People who’ve never been to the Purple Rose before are coming in droves to see it. It’s the fastest bestselling new play we’ve ever done.”
But why are we so drawn to stories about the people and places that surround us?
By way of explanation, Sanville points to the revelatory experience he had while watching the 1979 Boar’s Head Theatre production of Gus Kaikkonen’s “Time Steps,” which was set in a cottage by Houghton Lake, and featured the sound of longtime Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell on a radio.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” said Sanville. “ … There’s a wide variety, a very diverse collection of souls, who call the Midwest home. … And to give people that experience of holding a mirror up to their lives, and to let them know their stories are worth celebrating and knowing, too – that’s part of what we do here.”