Docu-drama examines turning point in Detroit's race relations

By Donald V. Calamia

UDM Theatre Company revives 'The Sweet Trials'

DETROIT -

A pivotal moment in Detroit's history will be re-examined beginning Feb. 2 when the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company presents its 20th anniversary production of "Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials" at Marygrove College Theatre in northwest Detroit.

"It's a huge event," said playwright and co-chair of the UDM Theatre Department, Dr. Arthur J. Beer.

It is - and it was. So much so, that the landmark trials' far-reaching consequences were felt by Detroiters and Americans alike. And its lessons are as important today as they were back in the 1920s.

Ossian Sweet, a prominent African-American physician, moved his wife and baby daughter from a lower east side ghetto to a house on Garland Street in what was then - Sept. 1925 - an all-white Detroit neighborhood. The local Waterworks Park Improvement Association - a group interested in keeping their area sparkling white - wasn't thrilled with the news, and when the Sweets took possession of their house, a hostile crowd estimated between 100 and 800 people gathered outside to welcome them. A large crowd returned the following night, and rocks were thrown at the Sweet's house, breaking a window. Later that evening, gun shots rang out from the upper floor and back porch of the home, killing neighbor Leon Breiner and wounding another.

All 11 occupants inside the home were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Two separate trials were held, each presided by Judge Frank Murphy; Clarence Darrow represented the defendants at the request of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In the first trial, the jury was unable to render a verdict against Dr. Sweet and the other defendants, so Judge Murphy declared a mistrial and dismissed the jury. In the second, a jury composed solely of white men, found Henry Sweet - Ossian's brother - innocent of murder after less than four hours of deliberation.

Justice had triumphed over bigotry. And much to the chagrin of the local Klu Klux Klan - whose membership in Detroit jumped from 3,000 in 1921 to 22,000 in 1923 - even blacks had the right to defend their lives and their property.

"Detroit as we know it today is due to this one trial," Beer told the Detroit Free Press in 1987. "The Sweet trial, I believe, freed blacks from those ghettos. The presence of so many blacks in city government follows from this trial."

The genesis

It's surprising, then, that such an important story had remained offstage until Beer's script premiered in November 1987.

Although he had been interested in civil rights since his days as an undergrad at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s, Beer was unfamiliar with the Ossian Sweet saga when he was first approached by U-D's Sesquicentennial Commission to write something for the state's 150th birthday celebration. "They knew I was a playwright. In fact, I'm the playwright-in-residence here," Beer said. After he was given a brief summary of the trial, the creative juices started flowing.

With a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, Beer began researching the trials at the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library where he made an amazing discovery: The trial records had been lost. So he hired two research assistants to transcribe the daily newspaper accounts of the trial. "That is why the witnesses tend to be amusing," Beer said. "The journalists featured those that were."

Also missing were records maintained by the Detroit Police Department. "They gave me the same story about all the trial records being destroyed in a flood in the basement." But Beer has another theory. "I suspect they were an embarrassment to the police department, as you will understand when you see the play."

The officer in charge of the department's public relations department was cooperative, however, and unearthed the transcripts of the initial interrogations of the Sweets from the night of their arrest. "Nobody knew about these records," Beer said.

The initial production, the playwright recalled, was quite successful - despite nothing more than the usual amount of pre-publicity. "So we knew there was a potential market for this show that we had missed."

In the 21st Century

Although the script won a major playwriting award and was optioned by Paramount Pictures, nothing further happened with it until last year when Roy Finkenbine of UDM's history department asked Beer when he planned to revive "The Sweet Trials."

"I hadn't even thought about it, because it has a huge cast - and we have a small department," Beer recalled, noting that 24 actors playing 30 roles are required for the show. "But the more David [Regal] and I thought about it, the more we thought we might be able to pull it off."

Several members of the original production team are returning to the project, including director Regal and designers Mark Choinski and Melinda Pacha.

Also returning are two actors: Dave Bokas, who will reprise the role of Inspector Schucknect; and Beer who once again plays Darrow.

Other major roles will be filled by Equity actors Joseph Haynes, Greg Trzaskoma and multiple Wilde Award-winner James Bowen as Dr. Sweet. "He's our big guest star," Beer said.

Completing the cast will be former members of The Theatre Company, past guest artists and other local talent. "We're using practically everybody in the department," the playwright laughed.

Numerous state and local agencies - including the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the NAACP, the Wolverine Bar Association and the Urban League - have also jumped on board to make this a state-wide event. "The Sweet Trials Exhibit" is currently touring area libraries, and numerous panel discussions and post-performance talk-backs have been arranged. Plus, a scaled-down version of the play is planned to tour to area schools and communities throughout the state, and a detailed Web site is now available with educational materials that can be used in the classroom.

"We think there's a demand for it," Beer said of the project's many events. And hopefully it will spark an amazing - and still much needed - discussion by people of all ages, races and income groups.

'Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials'

UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Feb. 2-4, 8-11 & 15-18. Tickets: $20 adults/$9 student matinees. For information: (313) 993-3270 or http://sweettrials.udmercy.edu.

For information regarding school and group matinee performances, touring information, event schedule or tickets to "Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials" at Marygrove College Theatre, call the UDM Theatre Company at (313) 993-3270 or log on to http://sweettrials.udmercy.edu.

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