Diesel Heart, the new play on stage at the History Theatre in St. Paul, is an adaptation of the book of the same name, about and by Melvin Carter Jr. Now the fascinating thing about the History Theatre is that all of their plays are based on history, either the story of a real person or event that has happened. And so far as I’ve seen there is always a Minnesota connection. It’s also the kind of theatre where things like this happen; at tonight’s performance Melvin Carter Jr. was walking around the theatre before the play began, greeting friends and introducing himself to folks at random. How cool is that? Not only does the man live in St. Paul, but his son is the Mayor. I’m sure the History Theatre has an open invitation for him to come see the show whenever he wants. And given what I’ve learned of him tonight I think he probably stops by fairly often. He is a person who is able to connect with people, who found his life’s work when he started using that talent to connect with young black men who needed a guiding hand to find a way out of violence. I think the best marketing in the world for the History Theatre is Melvin, it was clearly a thrill for the people I saw him stop and talk with. Now don’t worry if he isn’t at the performance you attend, the good news is the show itself is worthy of your time. Diesel Heart tells the fascinating story of Melvin Carter Jr. which is at times difficult, at others laugh out loud funny, and in the end ultimately inspiring and uplifting.
The play, which is written by Brian Grandison in collaboration with Carter begins with a moment from 1969 when Carter was in the Navy and stationed in Morocco, North Africa. It shows us the beginning of a boxing match which we will not see the ending of until later in the play. From there the narrative goes back in time to when Carter was a kid growing up in St. Paul. We get to know a little about is family, basically his Mom, Dad, sister, and some cousins whom he is very close to. We see him struggle with school work and making good decisions. After his time in the Navy his life is shaken by an act of violence that takes the lives of his two cousins. That act almost leads him down a very different path from the one he ended up taking. We see the night when everything changes. He applies to be a police officer, then he meets his wife, and they have three children. But even on this path there will be trials. He is a policeman on a police force that is mainly white, and would prefer to stay that way. When he confronts the racism, he finds himself transferred, and it is in one of these transfers to the Juvenile unit that he finds his calling.
Headlining the cast is Mikell Sapp as Melvin, who has the charisma to stand in place of the real Carter and guide us through this story frequently addressing the audience directly. He is also deeply compelling in the moments when he is expressing anger or struggling with how to persevere in a world and career that seem to be against him. There were two other performances that really stuck out for me. Ron Collier plays his father, a man of few words, but those words usually count for something, they either give insight into the wisdom of the man or show his dry sense of humor. He’s not overly affectionate, nor is he too strict, but he’s the kind of man when he says he’s proud of you, it means something. Monica E. Scott plays his Mother, and she is no nonsense. You don’t want to cross his Mother. Scott has to do a couple of things that could come off as caricaturish in lesser hands. First she has to play that Mother no one can pull anything over on that we’ve seen many times before, but she makes it feel real. Secondly she has to be a little bit of a badgerer to her husband. This could play as unlikeable but somehow Scott is able to make us understand her behavior and accept it as one aspect of a woman who is many things.
Warren C. Bowles directs the play letting the humor play when appropriate and leaning into the darker material at times without letting it become oppressive. Seitu Jones is the Scenic Designer and his design is very functional. A large turntable under a portion of the stage revolves to create different formations for the actors to play on. Within that center section that revolves panels open up from which furniture and props can be pulled out of as the scene changes. The production design is assisted by some video projections by Kathy Maxwell. At times the video is very effective, but it seems to be a non issue for much of the play and there is one set that simply looks too cartoonish to fit with the tone of the play. Finally, Annie Enneking deserves a mention for her fight choreography, young Melvin seems to always be fighting and Enneking has made those fights feel surprisingly real.
Diesel Heart runs through April 2nd at the History Theatre for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/
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