For generations, Mexican artist Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals have held powerful sway over the imaginations of visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the time of their creation, however, public controversy over Rivera's communist politics nearly led to the murals' destruction. Some critics even demanded the frescoes be whitewashed from the DIA's walls.
But they remained, and Wednesday marks the 79th anniversary of the murals, which celebrate the Motor City's manufacturing and labor heritage. Detroit's Elizabeth Theater will honor the occasion this week with three performances of "The Troublemakers: Frida and Diego in Detroit," a play that explores the controversy of the murals' creation and the politics and larger-than-life personalities of Rivera and his wife, artist Frida Kahlo.
The performance documents the couple's experience in Detroit from the time they stepped off a train in Michigan Central Station to the unveiling of the murals in the DIA. Louis Aguilar, a business reporter for the Detroit News, wrote the script after applying for and receiving a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship. It makes use of the actual words of those who supported and attacked Rivera's right to publicly display his work.
Aguilar said he grew up hearing stories about Rivera and Kahlo's escapades from his family members, who lived in Detroit at the time of the play's events. The title comes from an offhand remark his mother made about the artist couples' gift for stirring up trouble.
"The Troublemakers" originally ran at the DIA's Diego Rivera Court during last year's Kresge Foundation-sponsored Art X series. Attendance was so high, people were turned away at the door.
This year's multimedia performance will feature a series of rare archival images gathered by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stephen McGee and a score by Blue Note recording artist Jessica Hernandez based on sounds collected from Ford's River Rouge plant.
Aguilar will act as the play's narrator, alongside an ensemble cast of Detroit artists and media personalities, including WDET's Martina Guzman, Detroit News editorial columnist Ingrid Jacques, flamenco dancer and fellow Kresge grant recipient Valeria Montes and hip-hop performer Invincible.
According to Aguilar, many local artists expressed interest in appearing in the play and he was happy to make use of a high-profile cast.
He thinks the attention speaks to the continuing appeal of the murals' themes. Aguilar said the furor in the early 1930s over Rivera's economic critique lives on today in controversies surrounding economic uncertainty and undocumented workers.
"It's very relevant," he said. "The argument that nearly destroyed the mural is very much the same: 'You're foreigners, socialists, outsiders. What right do you have to talk about us?'"
"The Troublemakers" runs Tuesday, March 20, through Thursday, March 22 at the Elizabeth Theater, located above the Park Bar at 2040 Park Ave. in Detroit. The theater's box office can be reached at 313-444-2294. For more information, see the bar's website.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Aguilar will play the role of Diego Rivera in the play. He will play the role of the narrator. The story has been updated to reflect this change.