Filmmaker turns Norton Shores author’s novel into MCC play

Roger Rapoport has adapted Norton Shores resident Peter Ferry’s award-winning novel, “Old Heart,” into a play that intertwines the headwinds of World War II with an interracial romance that spans the decades.
Roger Rapoport
“Old Heart” will be performed May 20-21 in the Overbrook Theater at Muskegon Community College. Ticket information is available at The play premiered at Detroit’s Redford Theater in May 2022, and the trailer can be viewed at

The drama centers on two protagonists, African American GI Tom Johnson, a supply delivery driver with the famed truck convoy system Red Ball Express; and Sarah van Praag, a white, 24-year-old translator, who was part of the Dutch resistance. Together, van Praag and Johnson smuggled food and supplies from the Netherlands’ liberated south, across Nazi lines to starving people living in the north. Johnson and van Praag’s brief love affair collapses at the war’s end and, 60 years later, Johnson, now a widower at age 85, takes a flight to Amsterdam, determined to find the only woman he ever loved.

Tucked within the play is a lot of hidden history, according to Rapoport.

“Not only American history but Dutch history, about World War II,” says Rapoport, a native of Muskegon whose writing career includes working as a reporter for the Muskegon Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune, producing the feature films “Pilot Error,” “Waterwalk,” and “Coming Up for Air,” and running his Muskegon-based book publishing firm, RDR Books, until 2010.

“One of the things that I didn’t know in researching this is that Black soldiers had been part of the American military since the Revolutionary War,” he says. “The first person to die on the American side of WWII was a Black man. There’s a whole Black history of enduring participation in the American military. By World War II, there were actually integrated units. It wasn’t formally integrated, but in this case, they were desperate for drivers, so we wanted to talk about African American heroism.”

Topic strikes a chord
Edward Gaines
Actor Edward Gaines, who portrays the older Tom Johnson, said “Old Heart” struck a personal chord with him.

“My dad qualified to go to the Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928 as a broad jumper, before Jesse Owens. But his grandmother was afraid at that time that he might not survive the trip. She didn’t want him to go, so he didn’t go,” says Gaines. “He would have gotten a gold medal had he gone. Going to Amsterdam got me into this because I knew this about my dad. It was interesting to tie them both together.” 

At age 68, Gaines is not nearly as old as the man he portrays, but the two share commonality.

“Just because you get older, you don’t die,” says Gaines. “You still want to live, you still have ambitions, drives, goals. You still want to do things but, also at that time in your life, you want to ride it out peacefully and with love. With people surrounding you who love you and fulfill everything you need in the last quarter of your life.”

With a cast of 23 actors, “Old Heart” is a collaborative effort that seeks to clearly convey the play’s intent, says Kirk Wahamaki, who codirects with Leslye Witt.

“The director is the one who has the final say, but it’s a collaborative work,” says Wahamaki, who is artistic director at Muskegon Civic Theatre. “Each actor has their idea of what the character is, and my position is really to help them succeed in putting it together so it fits coherently and conveys the story in the best way.

“I liked the idea of converting the novel into this wonderful play, where it takes the story to a whole new level. It personalizes it and makes it alive on stage so that people can really get an idea of what it feels like,” adds Wahamaki. “It’s a tough thing. Roger has done a good job condensing the book into a short, two-hour time period.”

Blend of fiction and reality

The play is a curious and sobering blend of the fictional Tom Johnson and the reality of what life was like for Black people in the 1940s. They did their part to fight for freedom abroad but, back at home, much of that democratic freedom was denied them. 

“My dad was in the Navy in World War II. When he came back, he would wear his sailor uniform in downtown Detroit because he got discounts,” says Rapoport. “Black people who wore their uniforms were taking a risk. Some of them were attacked. People didn’t like Black soldiers talking about their heroism.”

This is a compelling reason the character Tom Johnson wants to remain in the Netherlands once the war ends.

“Tom (Johnson) wanted to stay in Holland because he felt, as a Black man, he would be treated as a war hero, whereas if he went back to the United States, there was still segregation,” says Rapoport. “He couldn’t get the GI bill (benefits) and being in a mixed marriage would be really tough. But, in Holland, he could make it.

“As to the love story, a number of my friends who are in mixed-race marriages say they would (see) this play because it’s about (their) family.”
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.