Staged readings of "Houdini" musical to bring awareness to EMU's Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive

A series of staged readings of the musical "Houdini" will aim to get Southeast Michigan residents interested in the play's author, the under-recognized poet Muriel Rukeyser; and the Rukeyser Living Archive housed at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). The shows, which were made possible by a grant from Michigan Humanities, will be directed by EMU Theatre professor Lee Stille and performed by EMU theater students.

Elisabeth Daumer, professor of English and women's and gender studies at EMU, says Rukeyser has been discovered, overlooked, and rediscovered multiple times over the years. While she is best known for her poetry, Rukeyser was also deeply interested in history, biography, and drama, Daumer says. 

"She felt it was the poet's place to address the inner life of history, not just what happened but what people feel about what happened," Daumer says. 

Besides writing a musical about magician Harry Houdini, Rukeyser took an interest in and wrote about historical figures and events ranging from failed presidential nominee Wendell Willkie to the negative medical effects miners experienced from working in a silica mine in Virginia.

It was Daumer's idea to create EMU's Rukeyser Living Archive, with help from her students, to honor the 100th anniversary of Rukeyser's birth in 1913.

"She was a very prolific writer for five decades, and was published by good publishers," Daumer says. "But she wasn't anthologized. And if you don't get anthologized, it doesn't enter the academy, and you're not canonized."

Two staged readings of Rukeyser's "Houdini" are slated for Ypsilanti and two in Detroit, along with lectures and other supplemental events. The first event takes place at 2 p.m. March 20 at the Sponberg Theatre on EMU's campus. It will be livestreamed and preceded by a webinar at 11 a.m. The second is aimed at young people and will take place March 24 at Riverside Arts Center in collaboration with YpsiWrites. Two more shows will take place at the Matrix Theatre in Detroit on March 26-27.

Daumer says Houdini had "important connections in Detroit."

"He jumped off the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River, all locked up and bound, and he didn't count on the current," Daumer says. "It's one stunt where he almost drowned."

Houdini also famously gave his last performance in Detroit and died in Detroit's Grace Hospital of complications from a burst appendix a few days later.

"I believe this is the right play for the pandemic and for what's happening in our country," Daumer says. "The question of, 'What is freedom?' is so fundamental right now. Rukeyser in her [collection of poetry called] 'Elegies' says that freedom binds us. Just marvelous."

More information about the series of staged readings, and background on the musical, are available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Image courtesy of EMU.
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