Milkweed, a new film set in West Akron, opens with a series of simple close-ups of flowers. It’s summertime, and you can feel the humidity — Milkweed was filmed over two 100-degree weekends in August 2016 — as a blues record drifts in.
“I’m a traveling woman,” the singer croons in what sounds like a live recording played from a record.
John Dayo-Aliya, artistic director of Ma’Sue Productions, wrote that song, as well as the rest of the film.
John grew up in West Akron and co-created Milkweed with Ma’Sue Productions managing director Vince Tyree, inspired by the women in their lives.
“Our environment growing up was a bit turbulent, you know, but also full of love,” he says. There was this great contradiction, this mixture of this warmth and love and violence that I think permeates our community, and I think we wanted to comment on that contrast.”
Milkweed is powered by short, character-driven, occasionally tense and always human scenes: Women joking at a park about men they’re seeing; a husband imploring his wife for support in a business venture; a matriarch exhausted by her family’s demands and snapping at her son for drinking too much Kool-Aid.
“Milkweed [the title character] was my aunt who raised me. Hardworking, hardworking, hard work is her religion. She’s done very little else in her life except work very hard for all the people around her, and she loves greatly,” John says. “But there’s a very deep resentment for all of us because of the sacrifices she made in her own life.”
Milkweed and her younger sister, Junie, grew up in the 1980s during the crack epidemic that ravaged Akron and the nation. Their mother, Marion, was addicted, leaving Milkweed to care for both her sister and herself. The film takes place decades later, although Marion is no longer using, Milkweed is still supporting almost everyone around her.
“A whole generation of Black adults, young adults in the ‘80s, a very great deal of them became addicted [to crack]. Even the ones who weren’t addicted — my mother was not addicted — but there was a culture of drug dealing and partying that surrounded that and kind of took over the entire generation. So my aunt, being a young adult in that generation, I think that was another thing she was fighting against,” John says.
“That was a big part of the conversation that me and Vince were having as well. But I din’t want to write about the ‘80s. I really wanted to write about right now, and what is the impact of this epidemic on those children who are now adults? Which includes Milkweed and Junie… That is a story that I’m really, really excited about talking about, because I don’t think it’s talked about enough,” he adds.
The family scenes, which are often intense, are knit together by delightful moments of artistry. A father and son play a video game, and for a few seconds, an animation of the game takes up the whole screen and there’s nothing to do but watch. The Cuyahoga River marks changing seasons.After an argument, the camera spends a minute on flowers while viewers listen to a poem.
Milkweed was the first collaboration between Ma’Sue Productions, an Akron-based theatre company focused on telling African-American stories, and Amazing Suspense Productions, a local film production company that placed second in the Highland Square Film Festival in 2018 for Akron Eye See You.
Kurt Brown and Amy Spencer of Amazing Suspense met John almost a decade ago when he and Amy were in a play together. After Kurt and Amy saw Ma’Sue’s production of Blue Miss Billie, Kurt says, they offered them the artist’s version of a blank check: Whenever you decide to make a movie, give us a call and we’ll help.
Today, Amy, John, Kurt and Vince play in the band Church of Starry Wisdom, which recorded much of Milkweed’s score.
The cast includes Jeannine Gaskin as Milkweed, the title character and the family matriarch. Caorl Eutsey-McAfee plays Milkweed’s mother, Marion, a former blues singer who moves in with her daughter’s family after a stroke, setting up the rest of the film.
Crystle Paynther plays Milkweed’s flighty sister, Junie.
Willis Gordon is Milkweed’s happy-go-lucky husband, Melvin. DeAndre Hairston-Karim is her soft-spoken, college-bound son, Byron.
Much of the film was shot at the West Akron house where its producers live. Vince oversaw the production at the ground level, coordinating with cast and crew to make the film happen.
“Moviemaking is everything, every art, you’ve got to do it,” Kurt says. “Even the cooking. When you see that feast, John cooked that meal. It’s a prop for the scene, but then it’s also something you get to feed the cast and crew.”
The creators will screen Milkweed publicly for the first time at the Ma’Sue Big Blue Legacy Ball Fundraiser on Friday, May 17.
This may be the only chance to see this version of the film, its creators stress — they initially envisioned Milkweed as a web series, and hope to create other chapters of the story focused on other characters.
“If this can get potential attention, funding, backing, support, there’s potential for a continuation of a series,” Amy says.
The Big Blue Legacy Ball is May 17 at the Akron Civic Theatre. The film screening will begin at 6 pm. Tickets are $20, or $22.85 with Eventbrite fees, and areavailable here.
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip. Note: This story has been updated with a description of Vince Tyree’s role in the filmmaking process.
Images used with permission from Amazing Suspense Productions.