Again and again during Palmer Park, numbers inform the decisions of the characters. Detroit has lost 250,000 residents in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 race riots; the secret to harmonious living in the recovering Palmer Park neighborhood is to maintain a racial "balance" of 35 percent black residents and 65 percent white (any more blacks and the whites move out); the school board has a $7 million shortfall owing to the population loss; and, most tellingly, it all comes down to a 1:1 ratio, expressed in the wry statement, "Integration is what happens between the first black moving in, and the last white moving out."
Joanna McClelland Glass' loquacious, compelling drama explores the space between those final two integers, when the black Hazelton family gets new white neighbors, the Townsends. Fletcher and Linda Hazelton (Reginald Pierre and Jeanitta Parks) are well-educated, driven people who have left poverty behind and intend to guarantee that their daughter gets into a great college. That dream requires them to live as part of the 35 percent, in order to have access to better primary and secondary schools. Martin and Kate Townsend (Chad Morris and Rachel Hanks) are aliens from Iowa, idealistic academics who have little personal experience with black people and no understanding of what it means to be black and middle class.
The first act is mostly given over to setup, as characters directly address the audience with facts about the time period and personal backstory and the nature of life in Palmer Park. What might otherwise amount to dry exposition and domestic pablum is elevated by a cast that delivers a pitch-perfect rendering. Pierre in particular establishes Fletcher as a man conflicted by his own life. He's made himself a pediatrician, he speaks French, he appreciates fine art and is toiling his way through the literary classics (currently boring him: Thomas Mann), and yet once he leaves the cozy safety of Palmer Park, he's just another black man from Detroit. Unable to push too hard against the 65 percent for fear of losing what he has achieved, Fletcher absorbs slights with a quiet smile, even as he seethes inside.
But as the playwright noted in her spoken introduction to the play — which is presented by the St. Louis Actors' Studio at the Missouri History Museum and directed by Black Rep founder Ron Himes — Palmer Park isn't so much about race as it is about the educational gulf between the haves and the have-nots. In Palmer Park both races belong to the former class, and they fundraise constantly to keep the schools well supplied despite the district cutting corners. The surrounding communities, though, are predominantly black and blue collar, and the nature and pay of shift work prohibits elaborate fundraising drives. But those parents want what's best for their kids, too — which means sending them to school in Palmer Park, disrupting the 35/65 balance and bringing everything crashing down.
This conflict makes the second act far more compelling, as the residents of Palmer Park confront the hidden truths of being black and well-to-do while trying to formulate a plan to save their school without condemning the children of the working class to a dead-end education. There's a lot of ground covered here, much of it exposing the stark differences in the ways blacks and whites view their own cultural obligations as well as those between races.
What it all comes down to, though, isn't a matter of racial difference but of financial inequity. As the head of the working-class school's PTA reminds the Palmer Parkers: "Nobody wants diversity with poor people. It's like tennis elbow — it's for the upper middle class."