In light of the recent news that Los Ocampo on Chicago and Lake will be torn down for yet another overpriced apartment complex, I walked into Pillsbury House + Theatre eager to see how artfully playwright in residence Christina Ham will string together history and current times to make a bold and poignant statement about the Racial Covenants of Minneapolis and America’s long history of apartheid.
History’s Lasting Impact
Relating historical events to present day is ubiquitous of Ham’s work, Scapegoat also produced by Pillsbury House + Theatre back in 2016, features the historical and present day impact of racial unrest in Elaine, Arkansas. In West of Central Thelma Higgins is the determined detective who, with the assistance of her husband, Vernon Higgins, press to protect Watts after its uprising in 1966. Sidney Franklin, the plays’ main antagonist, is a big time realtor whose underhanded business ethic is exposed by his daughter, June Franklin, who steals a document detailing all the people Sidney has paid off over the years in order to obtain the buy rights to acquire land in L.A. Seeing Watts as an opportunity for his greed in light of the property damage caused during uprising, Sidney plans to get his hands on the buy rights of Watts. However, Thelma and Vernon obtain the document and use it as leverage to incite a local pastor and the people of Watts to protest Sidney Franklin’s underhanded business ventures.
Black Cops, Black Ops, and Miscegenation
While Sidney Franklin is the typical racist wealthy white man with a rapacious lust for power and influence, his ventures wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of two black men just as hungry for a piece of the ‘American Dream.’ Chester ‘Chess’ Williams, his right-hand man, and Officer Mackenzie, a cop desperate to become detective, played instrumental roles in building and protecting Sidney’s empire. The character dynamics of these two men replicate historical notions of whose to blame in black folks’ oppression and black upward mobility. During the final confrontation with Thelma, Vernon, Sidney, and Officer MacKenzie, Chess goes so far to say that his people are those ‘who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’. I’m not sure what America is in Chess’ imagination, but his own wealth is at the cost of black people he claims aren’t working hard enough.
Officer Mackenzie sits in a very perilous position because of his proximity to the black community he’s charged to ‘protect’ and the work he’s doing for Sidney. In the beginning of the play he asserts to Thelma and Vernon that as a black cop he ‘understands’ the position of the black people of Watts, referencing the small number of black officers in the force. Fortunately, his naïve nature makes him easy to find out as Vernon knows that he won’t contact the local pastor to make sure that Sidney is caught when he and Thelma finally return the document. Chess and Officer Mackenzie both represent the pervasiveness of whiteness and the ideology of the ‘American Dream’ as way to cause dissent and violence within the black community.
While Chess and Officer Mackenzie excommunicated themselves from the cookout, June Franklin in many ways is just as typical as her father. An oversexed white girl with jungle fever who has a strained relationship with her father, she steals the document in order to extort her inheritance so she can run off with lover, Hazel Tyler, and is consequently murdered by the people determined to keep Sidney’s secrets. June’s rebelliousness is typical, but her deviation from her father’s expectations and her proximity to the black folks of Watts, similar to Officer Mackenzie’s proximity to Sidney, made her a useful accomplice to Thelma and Vernon when it comes time to finally expose Sidney’s secrets.
Minneapolis and Mapping Prejudice
West of Central may be about 1966 Watts but the timeliness of this play couldn’t be more perfect. Minneapolis, a ‘progressive city’ is riddled with Racial Covenants that continue to displace, disenfranchise and diminish black, brown, and indigenous homeownership in the city. We may not have Thelma Higgins investigating, but we do have Mapping Prejudice, an organization dedicated to exposing the realities that Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the country regarding homeownership. I urge everyone who cares about Minneapolis, and the broader metro area to see West of Centraland learn how to get involved with Mapping Prejudice.