Part 3 of the series, ‘Industrial Valley,’ opens May 11
— The Devil’s Milk trilogy is the industrial story of Akron, circa 1910s to 1930s. This is Akron’s story as much as it is the story of the particular neighborhoods outlined therein. It might as well be the story of Akron today, right down to the constant destruction and construction. If only today’s orange cones could sing such catchy tunes.
First, you must bear the death of a man (“Death of a Man: Part 1” premiered the last weekend of March and the first weekend of April). You will watch him go through childhood into manhood. You will get to know him intimately as he makes you smile. Then, when you are truly charmed by him, you must watch him die. It is no spoiler to tell you this. The title spells it all out for you.
In these two acts of the first play, you will learn why it is called “The Devil’s Milk.” You might walk away questioning a lot of things, especially in today’s world of transglobal trade. “Death of a Man” is a one-man show in which Jairo Cuesta portrays not only a handful of characters, but a whole tribe on the edge of extinction by genocide. Based loosely on John Tully’s book, “The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber,” along with other historical and fictional sources, “Death of a Man” explores the Amazon, where countless indigenous men, women and children were mutilated and massacred in the mad search for natural rubber.
The second part of this trilogy, “Goosetown: The Devils’s Milk, Part 2,” (which was shown in April) is a musical, revealing the lives of the men who came up from West Virginia to work for the rubber barons of Akron. Six actors embody a whole neighborhood, and Honest Joe wrestles with a greedy tycoon, labor revolt and hidden river. It doesn’t hurt to look up the boundaries of Goosetown before you experience the show, but it’s not necessary.
Playwright JT Buck, whose own roots were planted in this neighborhood, does a great job of guiding you through a landscape that has changed dramatically since geese-keeping was popular in the city. Beer still flows in this old German neighborhood as it did back in 1913, but you are more likely to find chickens, and less likely to fall into Wolf Creek.
You don’t have to watch the first two parts of the trilogy to enjoy the third installment, “Industrial Valley,” which opens May 11. Each one of these are stand-alone pieces.
Though admittedly, if you aren’t familiar with Akron’s history, having experienced the first two helps to keep your head from spinning when you sit down for the third part of this trilogy. “Industrial Valley” is fast, witty and toe-tapping fun with an edge. You lean in to hear the whispers, and lean back to enjoy the boisterous singing and dancing. Prohibition becomes both a time and place. It is the best form of time travel.
Although the descriptions of each part of this trilogy are scant, it doesn’t do justice to how powerful they are. The playwrights, composers, actors and the director don’t preach to you. They don’t tell you what to think, or what to feel. They simply open up a portal through which you can relieve a time we all assume is gone. It is an experience worth your time and your heart. It is also a reminder that things don’t change much.
Akron is a place that rises to the top — so much so that cities like Los Angeles looked up to it as an example of how to grow and prosper — and then booms out into a grand explosion of hunger, debt and population decline. We know Akron’s citizens are anything but complacent. When money runs the engine of a city’s business enterprise, it is its people who must be the heart and mind.
The Devil’s Milk Trilogy takes us back to when our industries rose to the top through the sacrifice of life and the broken backs of others. They remind us of that which we forgot or were kept from us so we may remember, learn and end that cycle of callousness and disregard for the human condition for good. Akron will eventually find its footing and start to rise again, but with more mindful and humane business practices.
“Industrial Valley” will take place May 11 to 13 and May 14 to 20, at 8 p.m., and May 21 at 2 p.m. at the Balch Street Theatre, 220 South Balch St.
And if you missed the first two parts, all three shows will play back-to-back May 25 through 27 or you can see them one after the other on one day, May 28.
For tickets and other info, visit nwplab.com/the-devils-milk-trilogy or call (330) 867-3299.
The Devil’s Milk trilogy is brought to you in art by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, Ohio Arts Council and Akron Community Foundation. It is presented by New World Performance Lab, Akron’s alternative theatre company, and is directed by James Slowiak.