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Detroit Theatre

Alive and Well

I unfriended someone on Facebook recently because, even though she lived in Texas, she kept attacking Detroit—saying that it was in worse shape than Hiroshima and that the people in it were nothing but welfare-dependent bums.

I couldn’t make her see my Detroit, and I’m not sure which of us experience the greater loss for it.


These theaters represent only a sampling of what can be found in the city, from downtown to Detroit neighborhoods. Theater, like the city itself, is alive and determined to survive.


My biggest argument that she didn’t know Detroit? Detroit theatre and how it shows the heart and soul of the city week after week. It’s a scene that is as diverse as its residents: scrappy, dignified, irreverent, smart, infinitely creative, and survivalist. It’s a scene that doesn’t care what its reputation is, doesn’t care what illusions others might have about its viability, and doesn’t stick to the conventions of how things “should” be done.



My first experience with Detroit theatre was what many people first think of before they become intimate with the theatre that lives in the city year-round—a touring company that goes through the Fisher. As a child, I saw Annie there. The Fisher and the Fox still attract huge audiences to the big-name shows that leave Broadway and tour around the country. There you’ll see the spectacle in two grand theatres. These gilt-edged performance spaces can wow you before the curtain ever rises with their architecture and their reminder of the city’s grander days when wealth and industry were still synonymous with Detroit.

Then there are the theatres whose performers, producers, directors, and technicians make the city their home, those who create for audiences that want to hear their stories. Some of these theatres come and go—venues like Breathe Art that created fantastic work on both sides of the border but had to close its doors during the past year.

Others, such as the Equity house Detroit Repertory Theatre, have been around for decades. Founded in 1957, Detroit Repertory inspires goose bumps with its history, for it has managed to do what naysayers claim is impossible—it has been a leader in neighborhood revitalization. It fights racism through race- and gender-blind casting and continues to thrive with full houses of primarily African-American audiences.

Plowshares Theatre is another Equity company that flourishes in the city—a company that is Michigan’s only professional African-American company. For two decades, Plowshares has developed as an urban theatre bringing traditional and new works to the city.

This past winter I took my son to a new venue hosting its first production. The entrepreneur launching the group was a Wayne State theater graduate who owned a few downtown restaurants and bars. He created a stage on the top floor of the bar, and on a Saturday night when the town was buzzing with a rap concert in a nearby venue, the Park Bar was producing William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. From that start the now-named Elizabeth Theater has gone on to dabble in other types of theater, with its most recent offering being Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

It would be impossible to talk about Detroit theatre without mentioning the many improvisational theatres, those companies that delight in satire and don’t hesitate to poke viciously at that which is wrong with their city while continuing to fight for it. Planet Ant, which mixes improv with original and alternative works, performs comedy sketch every Monday night and hosts a full season of works on both their main stage and a late-night series.

These theatres represent only a sampling of what can be found in the city, from downtown to Detroit neighborhoods. Theatre, like the city itself, is alive and determined to survive. It constantly reinvents itself, growing on its strong roots and branching out to tell its story over and over again. Some leaves fall, but the tree survives.

Thoughts from the curator

The story of Detroit is the story of our country. It chronicles the rise of industry and “world-class cities,” and also of class and racial oppression, leading to decline and ultimately, resurgence. This series takes a look at Detroit's thriving theatre scene.

Detroit, Michigan

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Thank you for this article. I have taken Sommer to shows at the Fox and Fisher. Those are classic must-experience events when growing up in or around Detroit. I had field trips to those places too often to count when I was growing up there. Now that we live a little bit away from Detroit, I want Sommer to have some of those same experiences.I think we will now have to hit some of the lesser known (at least to me) theaters since Sommer's interests have turned to drama and staging. Thanks for sharing info on some of these theaters. It's a great starting point for Sommer and me.

I love this post, because it feels so much like one I wrote about Buffalo theater not that long ago:
http://www.2amtheatre.com/a... I'm in the midst of writing an article about what it's like to be an actor in Buffalo, and I'm sure you could write something similar in Detroit. Communities like this are so precious and so unrecognized, but they are providing artistic lives and experiences for so many people.

Thank you for introducing us to Detroit Theater. I admit that I have harbored some negative feelings about the city sincethe 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. Two out-of-work automakers, white men, beat a stranger, an Asian male, to death with baseball bats. The jury of their peers found them not guilty because the defendants claimed that they mistook the man they murdered to be Japanese. Chin was Chinese American. I guess the logic was that if he was in fact Japanese, the murder was justifiable since Japan was destroying the U.S. car industry. The men were given a small fine to pay for the crime. The nation’s anti-Japanese sentiment was at its peak. Though it happened decades ago, I remember it clearly as a college student. I wouldn’t have thought to visit Detroit until recently when it became apparent that President Obama’s rescue effort of the auto industry paid off. I’mcertain I would not have been beaten to death there in 2010 or 2011, but memory is tenacious. From your posting, Detroit sounds like a thriving theatrical city, and I’m glad to know about it today.

I would like take this opportunity you have given me to think about how powerful a tool storytelling is, reflect on my old wound about Detroit based on one story, and examine the words of your former facebook friend, her expressing that Hiroshima is analogous to a city she deems depressed and dangerous. I assume by “Hiroshima,” she means the condition after the atomicbombing on August 5, 1945. This is an irresponsible and ignorant comparison. It confirms my belief that as a theater artist, we must use language thoughtfully. (Your facebook friend may not be a theater artist, but I believe it applies to everyone.)

Hiroshima is one of the two cities in entire human history that nuclear bombs were dropped purposely to kill people. Afterward, the U.S. military conducted a massive PR campaign including suppressing all visual images of the aftermath. The military recorded over 100 hours in color footage of the city a day or two after the bombing, all of which was then classified, and the U.S. public never even knew about its existence. All black and white images that the Japanese media recorded were confiscated as well. One brave soul hid a single reel, risking his life, and this was how some of the images became available to the world. In the 1959Alain Reniais’ French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, you see a montage of some of the shots.

The U.S. population, for the most part, believed that the result of the bombing was a city simply disappearing. The government chose two rather beautiful photos to circulate: the flattened city with a skeletal dorm and the majestic mushroom cloud. Many people still believe those two images tell the visual story of nuclear war. In reality, there were many ghost-like bloody naked bodies with shredded skin and exposed intestines wandering around in extreme agony. The water in the Ota River boiled and was filled with burnt dead bodies.

Shigeko Sasamori, a survivor who was thirteen at the time, tells her story of being left in some school gym, laid out with hundreds of dying people of various gruesome conditions for four days without water, food, or medicine (She leaned it was four days afterward, She didn’t know how much time had passed when she was discovered.) There were no doctors, and even if there were, they would not have known how to treat these victims. Nothing like this had ever happened anywhere in the world before. Shigeko was so close to the detonation point, it was a miracle that she survived. When her mother came looking for her, it was impossible for her to recognize her daughter. Her face was swollen to the size of a basketball, completely charred black, and had no human features left. Her mother realized that this devastated small being was her daughter because Shigeko was repeating her name and address in a tiny voice. She had been chanting this with all her will to live for four long, lonely, terrifying, painful days.

From a storytelling point of view, I realize that it’s extremely easy to skew thefacts by choosing one incident about a city (Vincent Chin’s murder) or a fewimages to paint the entire character of a city or an event. I feel that the media is careless about this practice, and in turn we all do it occasionally without thinking. In my opinion, no place can be worse than Hiroshima on August 5, 1945. Statements like this person’s make the actual colossal human tragedy trivial, and therefore, easy for us all to forget it. There are over 13,000 trigger-ready nuclear weapons on this planet now. I would like to believe that if the U.S.citizens had the opportunity to view the hidden images of what this particularweapon did to humans, they would not have agreed to the government furtherdeveloping it. I would like to believe that no one is so heartless to think that even the “Japs” deserved this horror. They were deprived of important stories at a crucial time of history.

I’m not advocating that every piece of theater we create present a balanced view. We are all interested in telling specific stories from our unique artistic point of view. But more than any other performing or written artists, I think we should be aware of the power of language. We are powerful because plays were spoken live by actors, and the audience perceives that the story is unfolding on stage in the present. With this knowledge, I personally try toextend this practice to life outside theater. Words can be devastating weapons. Reading the words of any friend that said – [Detroit] was in worseshape than Hiroshima –would have injured me. We are in the midst of the presidential election campaigns, so we are all keenly aware of the danger of words.

Shigeko is eighty years old. She tours all over the world telling her story before time runs out. Her outer scars are visible, which tells an immediate visual story, but what she adds to it is compassion and hope for the future. She comes to NYC annually, and she and I do a theater retreat with public high school students for the organization Hibakusha Stories. She tells the teenagers about her face that was like burnt toast, and when the skin was peeled off, it was covered with yellow pus like custard cream. The students laugh and cry at the same time, and then write and make theater based on what they understand to be Shigeko in Hiroshima on that fateful day. My hope is that some of these students will never forget Shigoko’s words.

Thank you, Bridgett, for your post which provided me with a personal opportunity for introspection. I hope to visit Detroit someday. And if anyone has gotten to this point and have read my rambling, thank you.