Quote of the Day: Melvin Carter’s storytelling is rooted in challenging gun glorification language, presumptions and conclusions. His leadership skill is the power of reaching the unreachable and teaching the unteachable, through the power of story and storyteller. from the program guide for the History Theatre’s production of Diesel Heart, the story of Melvin Carter, Jr. based on his life and autobiography. The above quote comes from the section on Save Our Sons, a program that he founded in St. Paul, MN in 1991.

This play, Diesel Heart, the Melvin Carter, Jr. story, is both personal and global. Carter’s book, by the same title, was published in 2019. Former Artistic Director for the History Theatre, Ron Peluso, read the book and contacted the playwright Brian Grandison and suggested he write the stage adaptation of the book. Grandison has known the Carter family for years. The director, Warren C. Bowles, read the book and encouraged the entire cast to read it, as well as audience members, and well, everyone. Melvin Carter, Jr. is a powerful storyteller and generously shares his story. 

Pearce Bunting, Eric Knutson, and Mikell Sapp as Melvin Carter, Jr. in Diesel Heart at the History Theatre. Photo: Rick Spaulding

The play opens with a scene from Carter’s Navy days, where he is boxing against a white sailor. He was strong and determined, and even though his time in the Navy wasn’t exactly what he’d signed up for, he did his best. He persevered. Throughout his life, Carter persevered through many hardships, racism, tragic deaths of his cousins, and relocation of his family because of the interstate ripping through the Rondo neighborhood. Carter’s life reflects the history of the US, particularly for Black Americans. 

Mikell Sapp as Melvin Carter, Jr. in Diesel Heart at the History Theatre. Photo: Rick Spaulding

Playwright Grandison does a wonderful job of giving us snapshots of Carter’s life. It’s a daunting task to take a person’s entire life, thus far, and parts of his book, and turn them into a two-hour play. Mikell Sapp plays the older Melvin Carter Jr. and narrates several scenes as well. Calvin Zimmerman plays the Young Melvin. We see his life unfold in flashbacks to the 1950’s, 60’s and later. Melvin struggled in school, but his mom wouldn’t let him fail. Monica E. Scott plays his mom, and others, in this play. She rules the house with a firm, but loving, hand. She gets Melvin to focus long enough to learn his schoolwork. When he’s older and is going through his police academy training, he leans on what he learned from her and passes all his exams. Ron Collier plays his dad, and others, in the play. He was a talented musician and a hard worker. Melvin looked up to him and aspired to be like him. 

Calvin Zimmerman as Young Melvin, Moica E. Scott, Peyton Dixon and Ninchai Nok-Chiclana in Diesel Heart at the History Theatre. Photo: Rick Spaulding

The rest of this talented cast play various characters throughout Melvin’s life. Eric Knutson plays various roles. Pearce Bunting plays the boxer and others, and Peyton Dixon plays Melvin’s cousin and others. Darius Dotch plays one of Melvin’s tormentors and others. Melvin was often challenged to fight and defend himself throughout his younger years. The murders of his cousins in 1974 were particularly devastating, and he had plans to take revenge on their assailant.

Pearce Bunting, Eric Knutson, Peyton Dixon, Ninchai Nok-Chiclana, and Mikell Sapp as Melvin Carter, Jr. in Diesel Heart at the History Theatre. Photo: Rick Spaulding

Ninchai Nok-Chiclana plays another Black officer recruit and others. Camrin King plays Toni, Melvin’s wife, and others. The couple had three children: Alanna, Anika, and Melvin Carter III, St. Paul’s current mayor. Toni was the Ramsey County Commissioner, the first Black woman to hold that office in the state. 

Mikell Sapp and Camrin King in Diesel Heart at the History Theatre. Photo: Rick Spaulding

This story is packed with poignant scenes in Melvin Carter, Jr.’s life. We see the challenges he faced and meet the important people in his life. He encountered displacement, racism, violence, and tragedy, yet her persevered. When he became a police officer for the city of St. Paul, he used his position to do good. He is the founder of Save Our Sons and continues to do work in his community to build relationships and give people a chance to thrive. I saw the show on Sunday afternoon where they had a post-play discussion. Melvin Carter was there, along with the playwright, most of the cast and current Artistic Director for the History Theatre, Richard D. Thompson. It was fascinating to hear more of Melvin’s stories and see his interaction with the creative team. His story continues.

You can see Diesel Heart at the History Theatre in St. Paul, MN through April 2, 2023. It’s both gut-wrenching and inspirational. Wonderful, movable set by Seitu Jones. Costumes by Joe Burch. Lighting/video design by Kathy Maxwell. Great projections at the back of the stage to establish setting and mood. Sound design by Katharine Horowitz. 

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: Who are some of the strong leaders in your community?