Freshwater explores Detroit in The Beacon from Belle Isle

Michigan native J. Merrill Motz wants you to know that, despite all the bad press, Detroit is not dead.

The playwright's The Beacon from Belle Isle opens the third season by Ivey-Award-winning Freshwater Theatre this weekend at Nimbus Theater.

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The inspiration came from work that Motz did in graduate school where he had to write, rehearse, and produce a short piece within a week. "On Monday we got a theme and by Friday we had to write and cast and perform a five-minute show," he says. "You learn how to work with that deadline all the time. It was drilling structure and voice."

That merged with another stream of thought from the playwright. "I started posting all these things about Detroit. I had gone back for a family reunion, and it was the first time I had been back. There are abandoned buildings and such, but there is still so much going on there. I don't like this idea of calling it a dead city," Motz says.

The resulting play features a number of scenes exploring themes and characters from around Detroit, framed by the story of a couple whose car has broken down in the Upper Peninsula. "There are 33 characters. It is definitely the biggest cast I've ever attempted," Motz says.

Jamil Jude directs the 11-actor company. "From day one, the fun was figuring out how we can maximize their creativity. There is a scene with Motown, and we needed strong African-American artists to bring that through. Another scene might need an older white female," he says. "We had magical realism in our back pocket. That allowed us to do some fun things with 'non traditional' casting."

The playwright, director, and company have all worked closely together through the development process. That has meant numerous revisions through the months of development. All of that is making the work much stronger, Motz says.

"We've all looked at this play for a year and have watched the initial acorns of ideas develop," Jude says. "What's the story of what we are trying to tell? We introduce the audience to so many different characters. My role as the director is keeping the audience's perspective in the room."

Jude, who is Mixed Blood Theatre's National New Play Network producer in residence, brings that experience to the Freshwater process. "He is wonderful in nurturing artists in a way to allow them to blossom," says Ruth Virkus, Freshwater's co-artistic director.

"I get super excited by new productions. The things we do with this one will be in the script for perpetuity. We are allowed to be greater and better artists if we don't have other productions to compare to," Jude says.

As in the past, Freshwater will present a second show in rep with The Beacon from Belle Isle. It's a remount from the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Circle: A Musical Odyssey, written and directed by Maggie Sotos. The show will be presented November 10, 15, 17, and 20.

"We don't set out to have any answers for Detroit or Michigan. We want to introduce people to a variety of ways of being," Jude says. "I'm excited there is a balance."

The Beacon from Belle IsleĀ 
Friday through November 23
Nimbus Theatre

1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

For tickets and information, call 612.816.8479 or visit online.