Ethnic awareness in theater
Andrew Killgallon, Arts & Cultures Editor
March 30, 2011
Filed under Arts & Culture
Gentrification within a small neighborhood reveals a growing problem of racism among its inhabitants in Eric Theis’ “Riverwest: A Rhapsody.” Theis, a Madison Area Technical College alumnus, and his cast of six performed this must-see at The Broom Street Theatre .
While the play is fictional, it is based on a real neighborhood of Milwaukee where racial and ethnic diversity enabled Theis to explore the conflicts between people in a confined area. His small, but powerful cast was not afraid to shed light on controversial topics.
Clyde (Chuck Mielke) runs the Atlantis Bar and Café, where much of the troop congregated. Being a former hippie activist, Clyde was upset with the actions that today’s youth have used to speak their mind.
Collin Erickson provided a powerful performance as Bryan, the rebel activist who early in the show possessed an elitist attitude.
Erickson shared a scene in the back of a squad car with Odari McWhorter (Dre) that proved the two are promising actors. Each line was spot on and really opened the eyes of the audience to the racial tension that exists within an inner city setting.
Early interactions between Clyde and Bryan reflected the current generational gap and the unwillingness to understand each side of the argument. Audrey (Sabra Katz-Wise) stepped in to point out how immature people can be when debating about current affairs, and not being afraid to throw in subtle references to the current Capitol conundrum.
Betsy Wood shined as Dre’s widowed grandmother who had to give her dreams up and take on the responsibility of raising her great grandson. After dealing with Dre running away during an argument, Clyde pushed her to express herself through singing at his bar. The long lost love quickly rekindled and drew tears from the audience when Wood belted out in song.
The play struck home with many locals due to its timeliness. The real Riverwest community is located just west of the Milwaukee River and is in close proximity to the university. It has been a close-knit community with co-ops and its own community newspaper since the turn of the century. The neighborhood is also home to many low-income families whose lives were greatly affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s time as county executive.
The Broom Street Theatre, which moved to Williamson Street, has been a staple for Madison’s art scene since the 60’s. Nestled back, almost behind, another building, the theatre’s main mission is to nurture aspiring artists, which made it ideal for Theis’ production because it encouraged talented audience members to participate.
During a scene in The Atlantis Bar and Café, an open mic night gave each character the spotlight to express themselves and their position in the community. Audience members were invited to take part and perform as part of the late-night artist hangout. One impromptu performance, where a man put an emotional spin on reciting pi to almost the 50th decimal point, left even the cast speechless.
The production also became very true to the times when, during a neighborhood cop watch meeting, real information was supplied to the audience and what originally started as a scene in a play quickly felt like a meeting prepping people to protest.
“Riverwest” was truly a gem to behold. Unfortunately, the small community theatre often receives a stigma that keeps the Overture audience at bay. Though attendance was low, the actors on the floor made it feel more like a private performance of a larger production than a locally produced play in a small, struggling community theatre.