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.