History play “Highwaymen” shows how a district of Saint-Paul has paid the price for progress
There’s an intimate and busy scene in “The Highwaymen,” Josh Wilder’s new drama about the construction of Interstate 94 through the thriving Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul’s, which captures the human tension that permeates the work. .
Retired white town planner George Herrold (played euphemistically by Peter Thomson), who is partly responsible for the route of the highway, sits down to shave in the chair of black barber Timothy Howard (Kevin D. West, bridled but worthy).
George came to say goodbye to Tim, who actively opposed the freeway as destructive to his neighborhood – and to him personally. George is Tim’s last client before his business is demolished. When George tilts his head back to shave and Tim raises his razor, we don’t know what’s going to happen. It could still be Sweeney Todd.
“Highwaymen,” performed at the History Theater in St. Paul until February 26, features a storyline that unfolded in metropolises across the country as a result of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The system of The highways he created meant progress for the nation, but at great cost to the urban black communities that were cut in half by the highways.
Wilder’s 100-minute one-act play is a requiem for homes, institutions, and places of gathering distressed by construction. It’s also a Valentine’s Day for the bifurcated neighborhood, offering Rondo as a whole and healthy.
Director Jamil Jude’s clever production takes place on the evocative Wrara Plesoiu turntable, which features three locations. There’s a tiny house, a town hall planning room, and the barber shop where the men – they’re all men who decide the future in this room – go about their separate and uneven business.
The room is populated by true historical figures who live in racially isolated worlds, including town planner Herrold, city engineer George Shepard (James Detmar) and Deputy Highways Commissioner Frank Marzitelli (EJ Subkoviak) on the White Side, and the Reverend Floyd Massey (Rex Isom Jr.) and CJ, a garbage collector (Darrick Mosley), from the black side.
These actors do yeoman’s job. Subkoviak’s Marzitelli is cold and sneering – a carefree guy. Detmar’s Shepard isn’t that dismissive but he’s also cool. Herrold de Thomson is sympathetic and understanding, perhaps softened by age.
West invests the barber deeply. Faced with the loss of his business and his relationships within the neighborhood, it is not a character who suffers from imbeciles. Isom, likewise, lends majestic dignity to his role as a community leader caught between the wishes of his congregation and the authorities he feels must appease. Mosley, a nervous young actor, invests CJ with barely subdued fire.
“Highwaymen” manages to escape the narrowness which sometimes condemns historical work. The dialogue is contemporary and sometimes sharp.
Ultimately, Wilder’s play is a call to action. As superimposed images of a demolished past take to the stage and screen of the History Theater, we remember that the price of progress is not always borne equally. For some, it’s a breakup that lasts a lifetime.