Melvin Carter, Jr. with his children. (Courtesy of History Theatre)
The new play “Diesel Heart” follows Melvin Carter Jr., a native of Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, as he becomes a respected police officer and community leader. The play is inspired by his autobiography of the same name. Director Warren C. Bowles explains Carter was nicknamed ‘Diesel Heart’ because of a medical condition.
“He found out about it when he entered the Navy, and when the doctors were doing the physical work, they were rather astounded by it and they kind of nicknamed it a ‘diesel.’ And he's been called ‘diesel’ for his whole life,” said Bowles.
The play, written by Brian Grandison in collaboration with Carter, takes audiences on a journey through the eyes of a young boy who is struggling to make sense of the injustices experienced by his community. There’s the destruction of the Rondo neighborhood to make way for I-94, there’s a crack epidemic, and there’s police brutality. As he grows, so does Carter’s desire to make a change.
“There was a hatred, if you will, that was directed against Black youth, and especially Black male youth. And that was the period that Melvin entered the police force,” explained Bowles. “And he lasted for nine years and then just had to leave it. One of the comments I heard him say was that he didn't want to go around anymore ‘armed and angry.’ But then he felt a real need to help the community and was drawn back in. He lost tons of seniority, he lost the opportunity for advancement - but it was important for him to be on the police force. And there was incredible racism, not only for the community, but towards the few Black officers that were on the force.”
Bowles says the play highlights the brutal reality of standing up to the “powers that be” while working within the system.
“He is an incredibly brave man. He's an incredibly driven man. And he's done a lot for the community,” said Bowles. “When he left the police force, he left it because he thought there was a better way of helping the young people in his community. And that's when he founded, with a number of locals, the Save Our Sons organization.”
Founded in 1991, Save Our Sons works with male youth in the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center, offering mentorship and enrichment in and outside of correctional facilities.
Bowles says the play is also a tribute to an exceptional family (which includes longtime Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III) that has dedicated itself to serving the community.
“Diesel Heart” runs through April 2 at the History Theatre in St. Paul.