Walk Tall: Play Looks Back At Local Priest’s Challenge To The Church

By D. Sands
The social upheaval of the sixties and seventies didn’t just play out in the jungles of Vietnam or the segregated lunch counters of the Deep South. It knocked people off their feet right here in Michigan too, not just at noisy rock concerts or black power demonstrations but also in quieter settings like the pews of neighborhood churches.

Local playwright and director Aaron Timlin examines the era’s politics against this very backdrop in his new music-filled theatrical production “Walk Tall,” which runs May 8-11 at the Hastings Street Ballroom in Detroit.

The play tackles the real life tribulations of Father Jim Meyer, an outspoken Pontiac priest who was fired from his parish and served with a $500,000 libel suit as a result of his then controversial positions on U.S. militarism and racial segregation.

Father Meyer’s opposition to the Vietnam War compelled him to join the tumultuous protests of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where he was detained by police along with comedian-activist Dick Gregory for insisting on his right to peacefully assemble. His participation in local civil rights struggles of the time served to further antagonize members of the local church hierarchy.

“He was an assistant priest at St. Benedicts, which was a very conservative church in Pontiac, and he was trying to integrate the church and the school there. And him getting arrested in Chicago, while he was an assistant priest, was not taken very well by that church,” Timlin told Critical Moment. “The [play’s portrayal of his] trial just helps to bring out the story of what was going on, especially with the integrating the schools and the fair housing and the protests against the war.”

Meyer’s story is a familiar narrative to Timlin.

The priest married his parents at St. Benedicts and remains a close family friend. In fact, Timlin even lived with him in Detroit for a time after relocating from rural Michigan in the late 1980s. “Walk Tall” began taking shape about five years ago, after Meyer pulled out his old court transcripts and showed them to his younger friend.

Though the play has been in the works for several years, Timlin put the finishing touches on it only recently after completing the script for “Lambert Street,” a comedy about Detroiters from different backgrounds that showed last year with much success at Hastings Street and the Planet Ant theater in Hamtramck. Both plays are productions of the Detroit Broadcasting Company, a for-profit employee-owned company that operates under the auspices of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit.

Walk Tall” continues the media company’s mission of bringing socially-relevant theatrical productions to Motor City audiences.

The play delves into the story of Father Meyer’s trial and due process suit with the Roman Catholic Church, while touching on the larger conflict of the times. It has the feel of theatrical collage, exploring its topics with a series of short vignettes interspersed with musical interludes. Many of these episodes take the form of intimate conversations and arguments among church-goers, but there are also memorable appearances by famous figures like Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X.

Actor Andy Gaitens really shines in his role as Father Jim Meyer, especially during a hilarious scene where he discusses a possible reassignment with a higher up in the church administration. The musical numbers were a joy as well with spot-on performances by musicians portraying folksinger Phil Ochs and the Cannonball Adderly Quintet.

Walk Tall” features a large ensemble cast composed of both veterans and newer emerging actors and musicians. Perhaps because of this mix, there were a few rough patches during the press screening of the play that will hopefully be smoothed out when the full production takes the stage in May.

Overall, however, the production is intriguing and enjoyable, mixing heavy dramatic moments with splashes of comedy and music, while bringing attention to a lesser known episode of Michigan history.

Ultimately Timlin hopes the production will illuminate the conflict of the sixties and seventies for younger audiences in a way that helps makes sense of contemporary problems.

“I don’t think much of that has changed for a lot of people,” he said, referring to the Occupy Movement and contemporary battles over poverty, housing and civil rights abuses. “I think it’s relevant, and it’s also really current. It’s been how many years? 50-60 years? And we’re still struggling.”

For more information, visit the Walk Tall” website. Tickets can be ordered here through brownpapertickets.