History Theatre used to produce Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to honor Black History Month. The classic play showcases precocious youngster Scout’s reflections on her dad, crusading attorney Atticus Finch, along with his valiant, but failed attempt to save Tom Robinson from being framed for rape. This season, Black life moved from the incidentally tragic to stage center as the venue premiered Josh Wilder’s The Highwaymen.
The story looks at how so-called progress — the 1956 construction of Interstate 94 — callously shattered thousands of lives, destroying a thriving St. Paul community of homes, stores and businesses. As with the general practice of what this country calls progress, it served dual purpose of benefiting Whites by disenfranchising people of color, no less than Manifest Destiny empowered Whites by appropriating Native American land.
The Minnesota Historical Society documents, “An expressway linking the Twin Cities’ downtowns was long desired. In the end two routes were considered. The first was along St. Anthony Ave., running through the Rondo neighborhood. The second was located further north.
“Even though the Rondo option required the removal of far more residential buildings, the St. Paul City Council approved this route in 1947. This practice — tearing down Black neighborhoods for ‘urban renewal’ or freeway construction — was repeated in many American cities in the 1950s.”
Wilder reveals the decision-making process from which the disastrously impacted community was excluded. “This search for the truth,” he states, “is at the heart of The Highwaymen. The lens is switched around and it examines the men behind the closed doors that impacted Rondo forever and the community leaders of Rondo who did their very best to save it.”
The Philadelphia playwright personally reflects, “When I lived in the Twin Cities, I had a job in Minneapolis and a job in St. Paul. My job in St. Paul was in Rondo and I was always being told that I should look up the history of the neighborhood.
“When I finally did, it made me realize how such moments, like 1-94 going through Rondo, weren’t talked about in my history books when I was in high school. A city’s scars never go away, and I felt it necessary for the Twin Cities to recognize the reality and current significance of the highway then and now. The action of discarding a community for the sake progress is happening right now in our country. This constant erasure is frightening,” he said.
Jamil Jude, who directs, says the play is about the invisible process of city planning and public policy, about the people who were kept out of the room. “They were made to feel invisible, about the homes that were destroyed, and literally made invisible.”
The cast features gifted Twin Cities veteran Kevin D. West, Rex Isom, Jr., Darrick Mosley, E.J. Subkoviak, Peter Thomson, and Jim Detmar, of whom Wilder says, “Their heart, commitment and intellect [are impressive]. It’s always good to feel like the actors are on your side. They are the magic people. The work they do is important and [this] was a privilege.”
He reflects on working with Jude: “Jamil and I have been close collaborators for years and this is our first time working on a play together. Jamil is an awesome collaborator and a gatherer of community. [By] having Jamil at the helm, the development process was a joy and seeing him bring this production through with me has been unforgettable.”
Following the closing performance is a post-show talk, “Keeping Rondo Alive,” with Frank White, Old Rondo resident, community advocate and author of “They Played for the Love of the Game, Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota. Growing up a half-block from Western and St. Anthony, White witnessed firsthand the turn of events that forever changed his community.
The Highwaymen continues through February 26 at The History Theatre, 30 E. 10th Street in St. Paul. Tickets range from $28-$40. For more information, call 651-292-4323 or go to www.historytheatre.com.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.