By Daniel Skora
No personality, political or otherwise, so dominated the local news scene in the first dozen years of this century than Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick was first elected mayor of Detroit in 2001. He had charisma and came from a politically connected family. His star shone brightly and his political future showed no boundaries. But like many a gifted man, his character was flawed. Whether it was pride, or arrogance, or simply the misuse of power for personal gain, he squandered his gifts for cheap thrills.
Carol Teegardin, a former writer for The Detroit Free Press, has adapted for the stage her 2011 book “Strawberry – How an Exotic Dancer Toppled Detroit’s Hip-Hop Mayor”. The result, “Strawberry – What Party?” is now playing at the Marlene Boll Theatre.
Tamara Greene is known in polite vernacular as an exotic dancer. She scored a gig at what has become both the famous and the infamous Kwame Kilpatrick bachelor party. Held at the Manoogian Mansion, the city-owned residence of the mayor, it was said to have been attended by strippers, the mayor’s personal protection unit, and assorted guests and dignitaries. Many say that the party is nothing more than urban legend. The bullet-riddled body of the stripper called Strawberry suggests otherwise.
In Teegardin’s script, Strawberry/Greene (Alenna Mae Brown) comes off as a woman torn between two worlds. As a mother and would-be shop owner, she exhibits a remarkable candor and self-awareness that belie her profession. As a dancer, she could bump and grind with the best of them. By the time of the fabled party (fabled because all proof that the whole sordid affair ever took place seems to be of the circumstantial evidence kind), Kwame (nicely portrayed by Rosie Johnson though lacking in the mayor’s considerable bulk) is at the point of his career where he feels he can get away with anything. He’s having a torrid affair with his aide Christine Beatty (Angela Roberts-Johnson) which will become very public when text messages between the two are released in the course of his trial. Money is pouring in as a result of his many pay-for-play deals involving city contractors.
It’s never quite clear how Kwame’s wife Carlita (Kyam Hilliard) interjects herself into the party. But there she is, baseball bat in hand, and a bruised and battered Strawberry is left to fend for herself. The police reports she files and the hospital records of her being treated are mysteriously lost. Less than a year later, Strawberry is shot to death sitting in a car. Her killer remains unknown even today.
Any play based on historical events has to be considerate of the facts and the supporting characters that weave through the proceedings. “Strawberry” is no exception. Its players include Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Kwame’s mother (Madelyn Porter); Marco Johnson, Kwame’s personal bodyguard (Reginald Cashaw); Dante, a city contractor (Edward Gaines); and Wade Hill, a member of the press (Doug K. McCray). Several characters are composites with only the main characters retaining their own names.
The Strawberry/Kilpatrick /Manoogian Bachelor Bash is, of course, legend in these parts. The opening night audience was obviously very knowledgeable about the story’s various episodes and pleased with the performance, contributing vocal approvals to the proceedings whenever the action got hot and heavy. As theatre, the play is certainly provocative. It’s got more than its share of sex, scandal, and the heavy-handed abuse of power. Performances by some of the fifteen players are sometimes uneven, but the dedication and enthusiasm of the entire cast more than makes up for that. As history, “Strawberry” is a condensed version of a time when all the news coming out of the City of Detroit revolved around one man. Tamara Greene was but one person to get involved in what can best be described as a sordid affair. And for that she paid dearly.
The show is directed by Mary F. Bremer-Beer. Set design, mainly an assortment, of various tables and chairs for the different scenes, as well as lighting, are by Arthur Beer. Costumes come courtesy of Judy Fletcher, lighting is by Seth Amadei, and Matt Lira is stage manager. In addition, David Parker serves as the fight choreographer and William Boyer is responsible for the video sequences.
The World Premier of “Strawberry – What Party?” runs through January 29th. The show is being performed at the Boll Theatre located in the YMCA building at 1401 Broadway in downtown Detroit. For more information call 1.248.660-7629. Tickets are available at BrownPaperTickets.com or call 1.800.838.3006.