Invisible Cities Theatre in the New Detroit
A burgeoning theatre scene exposes the possibilities and complications of the new Detroit.
Last summer, I took my parents to see Hamlet in Detroit. Across the street from the historic Fisher Building, in New Center Park, a small amphitheater in a gentrified neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown, a diverse assemblage of people, young and old, Black and white, suburban and city-living, gathered to hear Shakespeare’s classic. Spotty winds that affected the actors’ lapel mics didn’t deter the hundreds of attendees, who clung to the story for two-and-a-half hours and gave a rousing standing ovation. Towards the back of the house, standing just in front of the concessions, I spied Sam White, the young artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, beaming with pride.
Historically, Detroit isn’t a theatre town. Art is stitched deep into the city’s bones, from the Diego Rivera mural and the Heidelberg Project, to Motown and Dilla, to writers like Elmore Leonard, Vievee Francis, and Philip Levine. I grew up a white kid in a white suburb. Downtown Detroit was a half hour away but when I ventured there, it wasn’t to see any theatre. My parents and I went to baseball games at Tiger Stadium in Corktown, visit Santa at the Detroit Institute of Art on Woodward, or gawk at the newest models during the Auto Show at Cobo Hall along the river. Broadway tours stopped downtown, but the largest production houses were in the suburbs and beyond: Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, The Purple Rose in Chelsea. When I thought about making a life in theatre, I needed to leave Detroit at the first opportunity.
But now Detroit is changing, rising from the ashes of the largest city bankruptcy in the nation’s history. In 2016, Thrillist anointed Detroit “America’s next cocktail capital.” The Q-Line opened last summer, a streetcar that trolleys up and down Woodward Avenue, depositing riders at the bars and restaurants mapped by Eater Detroit, or at the almost billion dollar Little Caesers Arena, home to the Red Wings and Pistons. Belle Isle, a 1,000 acre island park once fallen into disrepair, is now the most visited park in the entire state. A burgeoning theatre scene has popped up as well. It’s a movement that exposes both the possibilities and the complications of the new Detroit.
Sam White started Shakespeare in Detroit in 2013, weeks after the city declared bankruptcy. “Detroit’s going through what some people want to call a ‘rebirth,’” she told me over the phone. “I don’t know what that is, ’cause that means that those of us who are from Detroit, we were dead at some point, I guess, because we need to be rebirthed.” A young Black woman leading a theatre company, White is something of an anomaly in her field, one that trends towards white leadership. But she believes in the power of classical theatre in her home city. As she wrote in an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, “I knew that Shakespeare’s storytelling . . . is important to a city that has seen its share of problems—from economic to political and social challenges.”
Hamlet almost didn’t happen. Two months before opening, an email was sent with the heading “Help Save Shakespeare in Detroit from being Cancelled” and a request to raise $9,000 by week’s end. “There is still a need for us to get more corporate support,” White said. “I can’t really point the finger and say ‘Hey, you’re not supporting us’ but maybe it’s less sexy because I’m from Detroit and I didn’t move here from, like, Brooklyn.”
Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker did move to Detroit from Brooklyn. They started A Host of People out of a gorgeous old homestead in Mexicantown. “The city is really complex and there’s a lot of tensions with people moving here and people who have been here and so it’s kind of a big responsibility to move into the city,” said Azab, who identifies as mixed race. “We’ve been more embraced by the performance art community (in Detroit) because there’s a history of experimentation. The majority of the theatre community is a lot more traditional and I think what comes from that tradition is a lack of diversity and equity.”
Emilio Rodriguez, a Latinx director, echoed that. “When I came here five years ago (from California), I had never seen such a lack of diversity in theatre and I was really thrown off.” Two summer ago, Rodriguez and Sam White co-founded Black and Brown Theatre, “to push the mission of having diversity on stage but also behind the scenes, too.”
Why in Detroit, a city that has been majority Black since the 1970s, is it so difficult to see Black and brown theatre and performance art? “Because of money,” said Billicia Hines, who moved to Detroit three years ago to direct the Black Theatre Program at Wayne State University. “The people who hold the money are not people of color.”
This notion may explain the swift rise of Detroit Public Theatre. Founded three years ago, they’re building “a nationally recognized regional theatre of the scale and scope of the Goodman or the Public,” said one-third of the artistic director trio, Sarah Winkler. They’ve secured partnerships with Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Historical Society, funding from the Knight Foundation and Quicken Loans, and $255,000 in founding donor money from a cadre of Detroit’s leading players in real estate, business, and philanthropy, all of whom are white. “We are a theatre founded by three women, all of whom are Caucasian,” Winkler said. “And yet we strive really hard for representation, for ethnic diversity and gender diversity.”
“I think them having a consciousness about it means that I feel comfortable helping them engage with Detroit, to not gentrify it,” said Dominique Morisseau, a playwright and Detroit native whose play, Detroit ’67, kicked off Detroit Public Theatre’s career.
“Because of Detroit Public Theatre,” said Billicia Hines, “we (Black actors) have more opportunities now that we didn’t have before.”
“We have the newcomer, the homecomer, and the life long Detroiter,” Sarah Winkler said, detailing how she, Sarah Clare Corporandy, and Courtney Burkett started the company, “which is the tale of the city right now. It mirrors what’s happening in the city that people who have stayed are partnering with people who went away and came back and newcomers to create really wonderful things alongside what already exists here.”
Gary Anderson’s Plowshares isn’t a new theatre company; they’ve been producing plays since 1990. Anderson, who is Black, isn’t from Detroit originally, though it’s clear he holds a deep love for his adopted city. “There’s a West African point of view,” he said, “where art must serve a purpose. My whole approach is that the art must have some impact. There’s a tradition of artists in Detroit using their art for impact.” The company was hit hard by the recession, shrinking down to one or two shows a year. Now, they’re on the rebound, thanks in part to a Kresge Artist Fellowship that Anderson received in 2016.
“I moved here in ’83,” Gary Anderson said. “A lot of the things that you see now didn’t exist. First time I knew some shit was up was when I was downtown on a Sunday morning and saw a bunch of white folks running. That shit kills me. Because the Detroit of ’83, if you saw white folks running down Woodward, they were obviously afraid of somebody behind them.”
“When I opened the opera house in 1996, we were lonely down there.” That’s David DiChiera, who founded the Michigan Opera Theater in 1971 and spent twenty-five years itinerant before funding their own space. The recently-retired DiChiera, who is white, told me that there were little cultural offerings around the MOT when they opened their doors in the center of the city. “But as the city began to evolve and to have much more activity, so both the arts and the cultural programs began to interface with what’s happening with the city. And I think Detroit’s really on a trajectory towards an exciting kind of evolution.”
Of all the people who came before her, Sam White looks up to Dr. DiChiera the most. “Some of the folks who are coming here now,” she said, “it’s cool that they’re coming, but he started the opera house forty-four years ago. He was brave enough and visionary enough to realize that opera house would become a gem to the city. He wasn’t thinking about the renaissance because he was the renaissance.”
“I started the opera company four years after the riots,” DiChiera told me over the phone. “So many of the people that lived outside of the city didn’t think this was a good idea. I was totally adamant about it. I felt that the arts should be focused in the heart of the city and that it should be what attracts people from all areas to come in and take advantage of those cultural opportunities. When I first started the company, nobody thought that anything was possible in the city. The city now has so much happening and that only bodes wonderfully for the theatre and music organizations that are there and provides an opportunity for those already here to enjoy what the cultural activities can do to enrich their lives.”
Dr. DiChiera, like many others, believes in the narrative of rebirth and revitalization. He’s seen it happen to his theatre’s corner of the city, where Comerica Park opened in 2000 for the Tigers, and Ford Field followed two years later for the Lions. The BELT, a public art alley dotted with bars and restaurants unveiled in 2014. Michael Symon, the famous Cleveland restaurateur, even opened a restaurant around the corner from the Michigan Opera Theatre.
Others agree with Dr. Dichiera. Last summer, at the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the fifty year anniversary of the 1967 rebellion, US Representative Brenda Lawrence—whose district covers some but not all of Detroit—proclaimed that “the city of Detroit is alive again.” National media have called Detroit “America’s Comeback City.” This coincides with a report by The Detroit News indicating that the white population has increased to over 10 percent, “the first measurable gain since 1950 when the white population was . . . nearly 84 percent of the city.” While the downtown core has attracted these mostly white newcomers who can afford a higher cost of living, the metro area continues to be listed as the most segregated locale in the country, with a black poverty rate three times greater than the white poverty rate. As the Metro Times has reported, “Wayne County has foreclosed on more than 160,000 properties since 2002.” Between 2000 and 2010, the city dwindled by nearly 238,000 people.
Gary Anderson bristled at the changes. “I think we need to remember that for forty years, there were folks that were here that kept paying their taxes, who should not feel like strangers in their own city. There are political decisions that are being made that are occurring in such a fashion, that it’s evident who they benefit. Like the Q-Line. That ain’t built for us. That wasn’t built for people who live in the city. This is not a wasteland, this is a rich, dynamic, and powerful community that has been so important to the fabric of this country and we continually forget that.”
As such, to pretend that no theatre existed here before the recession is to fall into the same traps as everybody else. Matrix Theatre Company has produced plays with and for the predominantly Mexican community in Southwest Detroit since 1991. Mosaic Youth Theatre has worked with public school students since 1992. Planet Ant has performed weekly improv in Hamtramck since 1993.
Long before them all came Detroit Repertory Theatre. In 1957, a collection of Wayne State theatre students, “saw that there was a problem with theatre in this city, which was very mixed racially; everybody was white on stage,” said Leah Smith, the current marketing manager, who is white. Detroit Repertory Theatre set up shop in the early ’60s a few miles north of 12th and Clairmount, the intersection where a white police raid of a blind pig, an illegal after-hours bar, one night in 1967 sparked a race rebellion that marks the city today. “Our mission stems from producing professional theatre using diversity-centered casting, to fight racism.”
Detroit Rep is still there, performing plays for the neighborhood. When we spoke, they’d just produced their first children’s theatre production in fifty years. “Our neighborhood is full of important citizens of Detroit that should not be forgotten and they deserve the arts,” Smith said. When I asked her why it’s still so hard to see mixed-race companies, she blurted out, “Idiocy!” before going on to illustrate Detroit’s continued segregation.
“I was lucky to grow up on the eastside of Detroit. In the ’70s and ’80s, my neighborhood was mixed, blue collar, working class, and I experienced the world that way and I’m going to come out of that differently than someone who grew up in Livonia.” Smith is skeptical of Detroit’s changes. “I see a lot of fun stuff happening downtown and then our neighborhood and others that are completely ignored and neglected. The people in this city are so . . . some people would say defensive, I would say inspired. They are ready to stand their ground and stay united and not go anywhere. They believe deeply in the city of Detroit. They’re gritty, they’re fighters. They’ve been made fun of in the international media for so long that they are so tough.”
Sam White believes that the making, or re-making, of Detroit should start with Detroiters. “You don’t always have to import everything. It’s empower rather than import. I’m not giving up my agency for anybody. I know that Shakespeare in Detroit is a really beautiful, meaningful, important idea. This is something that people all over the world do and I know the impact that a Shakespeare company can have on the city.”
In October, Shakespeare in Detroit found their sponsor when it was announced that Banyan Investments would transform a vacant building in the eastside riverfront into a mixed-use development that includes living space, a “European-style” market, and Detroit’s only Shakespeare company. The Stone Soap building was originally built in 1907 and Banyan will re-develop and make additions. It’s exactly what Sam White told me she wanted from the company’s first home. “I imagine it being a rehabbed space, something that has some personality and some rich history. I want it to be a native Detroiter, like I am.”