Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Carter–Melvin Jr., that is–set down his life's journey in his autobiography, "Diesel Heart," published in 2019. History Theatre commissioned playwright Brian Grandison to develop a play based on the book, which Carter enlisted as a collaborator. The affecting results are currently receiving a top-notch production at History Theatre, astutely directed by Warren C. Bowles and performed by a strong cast, notably Mikell Sapp as the title character. Carter acquired the nickname "Diesel Heart" during his stint in the Navy. A naval physician examining him noted that his heart had a naturally strong, fast beat–more like a diesel engine than a heart.
Putting aside Carter (and his family's) notable accomplishments, Diesel Heart succeeds mainly as a more universal story of a Black boy growing up with the odds set against him, who teeters on the cusp of a downward spiral and, it seems, only by an act of grace, avoids that all too common trajectory and builds a life of self-actualization and uplift.
The play takes us back to 1954 with seven-year-old Melvin at his family reunion in Texas. His grandfather had moved from Texas to St. Paul way back in 1917 but their Texas roots and the bonds of family remained strong. In Saint Paul, Melvin's father is largely absent, working on the railroad and playing nightclub gigs, and aloof when present. Melvin struggles in school, but his mother helps him push through, in spite of his own preference to hang out with friends. He is adept at breaking rules, getting in trouble, and having run-ins with the police. Still, he has a strong sense of belonging in his St. Paul community even after the neighborhood is torn asunder by the construction of a freeway. By age nineteen, having managed to graduate high school and getting a job and a car, his father effectively pushes him out of the house. Not yet able to support himself, Melvin joins the U.S. Navy where he learns that, though the Navy was desegregated, that doesn't mean he won't suffer abuse because of his color. He reaches deep inside for an inner drive that enables him to endure.
The second act shows Melvin working in St. Paul when a life-changing event occurs–his cousin Paul is shot to death. Melvin and Paul were especially close and had made a vow to protect one another. Melvin spends his nights on a relentless hunt for the killer to avenge Paul's death. The killer eludes him long enough for an old family friend, Corky Finney, who had become a St. Paul Police officer, to reach out to Melvin to join the police. Saint Paul had been court ordered to address racial imbalance on the force–with just seven Black cops on a police force of 525. It is 1974, and Melvin is steeped in the rampant thinking of the day that the police are the enemy in the Black community. He turns Corky down, but a seed is planted. He soon meets and falls under the spell of Willetha Parker, better known as Toni, to whom he is still married today. Melvin continues to reflect on what is happening around him and in 1975 calls Corky back. The play shows the hardships of police academy and Melvin's early years on a police force still rife with racism, as he struggles to understand the value he can bring to his community, and to affirm the value of his family's past by passing it on to those who will follow.
Diesel Heart does a good job of telling Carter's story, both the biographical narrative and the feelings that accompanied every step of his journey. There are several points that feel shoe-horned in. For example, the devastation of the Rondo neighborhood is afforded a brief scene that could hardly scratch its surface–it was the subject of an entire History Theatre play, The Highwaymen, in 2017. And, after the thrall of falling in love, the relationship between Melvin and Toni seemed to mainly consist of her letting him know each time a baby is on the way. Still, Carter's life has been eventful, and gleaning the full sweep of all that affected it makes Diesel Heart a richer experience overall.
Mikell Sapp gives a compelling performance as Melvin Carter Jr., enacting the unfocused young adult years and then conveying a slow but steady awareness that his life can have purpose, and he can make a difference in his community. We can see the moments of great doubts, the moments of pain and sorrow–especially tied in to the murder of Paul–the moments of finding pleasure in his world, and the moments of joy at finding something even more rewarding. As young Melvin, Calvin Zimmerman presents a youth who is still lacking in maturity but is basically good at heart.
The rest of the cast each play a multitude of parts. Most notably, Monica E. Scott is commanding as Melvin's mother Billie Dove. Scott convincingly shows the ways in which Billie's vigilance and support for Melvin–even when he doesn't want it–are vital to his development. Ron Collier effectively depicts Melvin's father, gone too much and too tired when he was home to function well as a parent, and then, over time, Collier shows him becoming more engaged, more supportive, and in the end, a cherished part of Melvin's life. Darius Dotch stands out in a variety of ensemble roles. Pearce Bunting and Eric Knutson take on the roles of white men, meaning they are tasked to portray a series of racists–and are frighteningly successful in showing us some of what Melvin was up against.
The set is a versatile revolving platform, with several different levels and stairs up and down, with a minimum of furnishings brought in for particular scenes, but designer Seitu Jones has created beautiful, evocative depictions of the many locations through which Melvin passes–the Texas hills, his childhood home, the Rondo neighborhood, his school, the Naval station in Morocco, the police academy, and more–that are projected on the rear of the stage. These are realistic, but with enough of a slanted vantage point to indicate they are the images of Melvin's life as filtered through memory. Joe Burch's costume designs catch the passing fashions of the years, while Katherine Horowitz' sound design and Kathy Maxwell's lighting and video design add additional texture to the production.
Biographical plays can be a difficult genre, trying to cover everything that mattered in a person's complicated life, while giving more than a cursory look at that person's experiences, and allowing for depth where it is needed to forge an understanding of what made the subject the person they became. Brian Grandison accomplishes that with Diesel Heart, and Warren C. Bowles has directed the play to allow the feelings beneath the action to percolate up and reach the audience. Moreover, what we see on stage is not only the story of the man Melvin Carter Jr. and how he managed to rise up and make important contributions to civic life in his city, but an understanding of the barriers that thousand of young people face in St. Paul, millions around the country, and what special circumstances, support, and acts of grace enable some of them to rise above those barriers. That is a story that could not be more vital at this time in our history.
Diesel Heart runs through April 3, 2023, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $43 - $53; seniors (age 60+) $38 - $47; under 30 -$30; All Tier 4 tickets: $20; Golden Circle tickets: $53, no discounts. For tickets, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Brian Grandison, in collaboration with Melvin Carter Jr.; Director: Warren C. Bowles; Scenic Design: Seitu Jones; Costume Design: Joe Burch; Lighting and Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Intimacy Coach: Elizabeth M. Desotelle; Associate Video Designer: Leslie Ritenour; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Jason Clusman.
Cast: Pearce Bunting (ensemble), Ron Collier (ensemble), Peyton Dixon (ensemble), Darius Dotch (ensemble), Camrin King (ensemble), Eric Knutson (ensemble), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (ensemble), Mikell Sapp (Melvin Carter, Jr.), Monica E. Scott (ensemble), Calvin Zimmerman (young Melvin).