HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – The inadvertent family—unrelated people who choose to be with each other, often at a bar—has long been a go-to situation for theater and TV; think “The Iceman Cometh” or “Cheers.” Margaret Edwartowski’s play Hamtown Races at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre is such a tale of family-where-you-find-it and the results are more than satisfying.
One reason is the play’s specificity. Even without its title, the play’s setting is unmistakably Hamtramck, that funky, gritty and diverse little city surrounded by Detroit. In the neighborhood diner where all the onstage action takes place you’ll find proprietor Noor, an immigrant from Lebanon; her thoroughly Americanized college student daughter, Lolia; diner fixtures and bickering buddies Jimmy, who is African American, and Dobry, who is Polish; and finally Matt, young proprietor of the nearby T-shirt shop that caters to the town’s influx of millennials.
These are people who probably wouldn’t have voted for the current president-elect, but that’s not an issue here. Hamtown Races was first performed in 2012 and is back, more or less by popular demand, in a new production.
There is one other character, a late arrival; we’ll get to him…later.
Edwartowski provides several storylines but characters are the engine that drives her play, none more forcefully than the quarrelsome, inseparable duo of Jimmy (Falah Cannon) and Dobry (Stephen Craig Blackwell). Their dialogue is snappy, funny and very informative about Hamtramck and its ethnic divisions. Jimmy relates to profanity as if it’s a component of the air he breathes: oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, the n-word and the mother-word. He uses “dumbass” as a term of endearment.
Cannon musters all of Jimmy’s bluster in the cause of a man with a grudge against the word, railing against the system (he’s fighting to receive disability) and the “A-rabs” and other denizens of Hamtramck (including African Americans).
Blackwell, with a pitch-perfect accent, is Jimmy’s good-natured foil, adversary and occasional co-conspirator. He supposedly works in his brother’s unspecified business, and Jimmy doesn’t work at all, but neither man really has a life outside the café.
Noor (Maya Gangadharan) and daughter Lolia (Shelby Marie Schroeder) persuasively convey the conflict typical of a protective old-country mother and more modern offspring. One source of conflict: the mutual attraction between Lolia and Matt, the T-shirt guy (Andy Alan Reid).
The one subject they skirt is the absence of the husband and father who has stayed behind in Lebanon all these 11 years, but that subject becomes unavoidable when the man (Samer Ajluni) arrives without prior notice, suitcase in hand.
I could give away the plot (I won’t) and it wouldn’t diminish anyone’s enjoyment of Hamtown Races. Persuasively acted, and emphatically directed by Amanda Grace Ewing, it’s a play of flavors, pungent as the varied cuisines of Hamtown itself.