Ellen K. Anderson’s new play returns to her beloved Detroit setting

Docents from the Detroit Institute of Arts claim ownership of a Nkisi. "In the Forest of Detroit" stars Leslie Gangl Howe, left, and Lisa Gates. Courtesy photo
Docents from the Detroit Institute of Arts claim ownership of a Nkisi. “In the Forest of Detroit” stars Leslie Gangl Howe, left, and Lisa Gates.
Courtesy photo

Playwright Ellen K. Anderson has been such a part of Santa Barbara’s arts scene for decades, not just writing award-winning plays, but helping found Access Theatre, leading the arts collaborative I.V. Arts and heading Dramatic Women, that one forgets her roots are in Detroit. It’s where she grew up, it’s where she earned her B.S. and M.A. (at Wayne State University). It was the subject of her most recent play, “Bedtime for Detroit,” and now she returns tonight with a second Motor City play, “In the Forest of Detroit.”

“Detroit gave me everything,” she says. “Including the uprisings (aka Detroit race riots in 1967) when I was in junior high. It gave me a damn good college education. I was the first to go to college in my family.”

It also gave her the Detroit Institute of Art, a place where she spent countless hours with her family, and all for free. “It was my temple, my church,” she says.

It’s also the beginning setting of her new play, where a Nkisi sculpture — a Congolese statue made for spiritual reasons by villagers and covered in nails — is stolen and two docents seek to track it down. They find it at the house of Grandma Trudy, whose house is one of the few left in these modern streets of a failed city. Ginkgo trees camouflage the house from the road, and inside, Grandma Trudy lives with her daughter and the stolen statue. The statue comes filled with bad spirits — the violence of Belgium’s colonial past, the appropriation of native art forms for first world display and money.

Ms. Anderson hired a Detroit artist to build the prop for the play, substituting foam core for wood. “Manufacturing comes back to Detroit!” she jokes.

Directed by Rena Heinrich, the play stars Leslie Gangl Howe, Lisa Gates, Wendy Sims-Moten, Mickey Flacks, Terry Li, Caroline DeLoreto, Tyler X. Koontz, Erica Flor and Tonea Lolin .

Leslie Gangl Howe, attuned to both comedy and drama, plays the lead.

“I’ve written 18 plays and for every one I’ve wanted Leslie in it, but she couldn’t do it,” says the playwright. “And now I feel I can retire! I don’t have to do this anymore. I told her she was on my bucket list.”

Also of note is the return to the stage after years of activism of Mickey Flacks — once called “UCSB’s Most Dangerous Professor” by the Independent — playing Grandma Trudy.

Adding to the play is singing duo Mommy Tonk, consisting of Stacie Burrows and Shannon Noel, the latter once a playwriting student of Ms. Anderson’s. “She was one of those students that reminds me of Steve Martin, talented in many directions,” Ms. Anderson says. The duo write comedy songs sung in a Southern style, and Ms. Anderson has peppered the play with their interludes that comment indirectly on the action.

Ms. Anderson has watched her beloved home city crumble and burn. Nature has reclaimed whole neighborhoods, and some blocks have turned into farms. For a while it depressed her. Now, she says, she’s watching it come back as artists relocate there for low rents and the space. “Detroit is like this rich, old woman who has had a stroke. You still love her but she’s funny looking.

“This is a brand-new play and a giant experiment,” Ms. Anderson says. “And I’m thinking it’s going to be cool.”

“In the Forest of Detroit”
When: 8 p.m. tonight, Saturday and May 21-23
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo
Cost: $18-$23
Information: (805) 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org

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