Many in Detroit’s Cass Corridor scene in the 1980s and 1990s knew Ron Allen not only as a groundbreaking poet and playwright, but also as a pillar of the community. To them, he was a generous cook, a sobriety mentor, a Buddhist spiritual leader, a Vietnam War veteran and, above all, a good friend. After moving to Los Angeles in 2007 to pursue his artistic career, Allen died in 2010 at the age of 62 following a stroke.
But now, a group of Allen’s friends in Detroit have decided to honor him with a new multimedia exhibit that opens at the Hannan Center’s Kayrod Gallery later this month. The Ron Allen Project includes a photo and art exhibit, a film, an open mic and a live performance of one of his previously unreleased pieces. A documentary is also in the works, which recently tapped last year’s director Daniel Land America, you’re killing me film about gay rights activist Jeffrey Montgomery.
A son of the East Side, Allen found community among the artists of the Cass Corridor upon his return from Vietnam, at a time when the exodus of the city’s population was emptying its neighborhoods. “Something happened in the transition from being at war to returning to Detroit,” says Carla Harryman, “and Detroit was no longer the same and, in many ways, was worse than it was. he had left behind. »
In 1982, Allen co-founded the arts collective Horizons in Poetry, and in 1997 launched the theater company Thick Knot Ensemble. During this time, he also served as a mentor to other addicts at places like Mariner’s Inn and Sobriety House, as well as a chef at restaurants like Cass Café and Union Street.
In his poetry, Allen found inspiration from the disadvantaged people around him, and his work as a playwright was a natural extension of his poetry, project organizers say. “He started by taking poems and turning them into dialogues between a few characters on stage,” explains John Jakary. “And they were just short vignettes. The first two plays didn’t have much of a common thread, other than maybe some themes about capitalism, or race relations, or interpersonal relationships. They didn’t necessarily hold together at the beginning, middle and end. But as he became more comfortable with writing for this form, we can see that certain themes began to unfold from start to finish. And he was actually trying to bring these ideas to fruition in different vignettes and in different ways.
In Ritual of a dead planetA Playboy the centerfold comes to life and argues with a black man. The Heidelberg Project: squatting in the circle of aged minds is loosely based on the life of Tyree Guyton, a fellow Detroiter who sought to heal his community through art after returning from a stint in the military.
“He was very interested in spaces of exploitation of people, of human bodies, of destructive distractions,” Harryman says, adding: “I think that’s a major thing, the difficulty of returning to some sort of sense of to be grounded when you are alone.” faced with so many types of distractions, which often come from poverty, but also simply from commercial exploitation.
“He was constantly searching for a deeper, more authentic or more creative way of being and understanding reality, like almost no other human being I have met,” says Jim Perkinson. “His passions were never rooted in convention or something that was supposed to be normal or taken for granted.”
Upon his return from Vietnam, Allen was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, and those who knew him say his plays were a way of coping with his mental illness. “His idea was that he just wanted to portray schizophrenia on screen or on stage, and so there are a lot of jarring things that happen in the script,” Jakary explains.
His condition also led him to seek out and maintain strong friendships. “I think his personal way of dealing with what some might call ‘voices in his head’ is that he calls people several times during the week,” says Ruby Woods. “And it wasn’t just fluff talk!” » adds Harryman.
In the years following his death, Allen’s friends decided to create some sort of memorial to his life. What became the Ron Allen Project began in 2015 with the initial idea of producing one of his plays. “We thought, OK, it would take a lot of money to produce one of his plays, but maybe if we made a documentary film about him that would be a start,” Woods says. They began pitching the idea at fundraising events like Detroit SOUP and at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge rejected the proposal several years in a row. In 2021, the local website Model D published an article about the project, and at the last minute that year, the Ron Allen Project launched the Knight Arts Challenge again. Perhaps thanks to Model D article and the Ron Allen Project’s presence on social media, this time it was a success and received a $25,000 grant.
The Ron Allen Project exhibition will be held September 22-30 at the Kayrod Gallery. It will include a presentation of The cockatoo hieroglyphone of the last pieces Allen worked on before his death.
“I can’t say for sure how he felt about it,” says Jakary, who has directed many of Allen’s plays. “He had written all these bits and pieces and we were putting them together. He thought of it more like a scenario. So there’s still a lot of stuff in there that was related to video and stuff like that. Jakary describes the presentation as more of a “staged reading” than a full-fledged production.
Most importantly, organizers say they hope to continue Allen’s legacy.
“He is one of the best poets in the Cass Corridor, bar none, a playwright who has managed to take poetry and bring it to life in a way that is sometimes breathtaking,” Jakary says. “And just a man who wanted to create a community for himself and worked very hard, at least for as long as I knew him, to achieve that.”
More information is available at ronallenproject.org.
The Ron Allen Project
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