The Rise, Decline and Potential of Black Theater in Detroit
A local filmmaker, actress and writer examines the changes in Black theater in Detroit over the last 50 years
All over Detroit, Black folks were putting on plays wherever they could—in schools, storefronts, recreation centers and especially churches.
Enter three idealistic young actors in the early 1960s with the gumption to open a Black theater with a permanent home. Motivated by the social and political unrest of the day, Woodie King Jr., Cliff Frazier and David Rambeau joined forces to establish Concept East.
“When we started Concept East, we believed that we could do anything, and we did it,” says Frazier, now based in New York, as is King. It was that feat that catapulted Detroit, according to the late preeminent African-American playwright August Wilson, into the limelight as a cultural hub that was to theater what New Orleans was to jazz.
Ron Milner. S. Epatha Merkerson. Lloyd Richards. Cliff Roquemore. Dorothy Robinson. Aku Kadogo. Ernie Hudson. Even Tony Brown, host of the venerable PBS television series that bears his name. All these performers and playwrights, among others, passed through Concept East on their way to national, even international, prominence on stage and screen.
That was nearly 50 years ago. Concept East is long gone, as are other local Black theater groups such as the Ira Aldridge Players, Harmonie Park Playhouse, Spirit of Shango, Ashby Players and Afrikan American Studio Theatre.
Yet Black theater has not vanished completely. The scope of stories told has changed. More common are faith-based musings of fledgling writers and producers. And, like the rest of the country, Detroit’s Black theater community struggles amid fickle audiences and financial hard times.
“It is very heartbreaking not to have a lot of thriving Black theaters [here],” says veteran stage actor Otis Youngsmith. Having launched his career with Concept East, he left Detroit in 1974 while touring with King in “What the Wine-Sellers Buy.” He settled in New York until returning to this area in 2006.
“All I can hope for is that more people decide to say, ‘I’m going to get me a building and open up a theater,’” Youngsmith says. “I just wish five or 10 or 15 people would get together and do that.”
Fueling that desire are fond memories of pre-1974 Detroit that include Amiri Baraka putting on his play “Slave Ship” here. Maggie Porter was still running the Harmony Park Playhouse. And Milner ran Spirit of Shango.
One factor that has resulted in a shrinking theater scene, Black or otherwise, is decreased financial support for the arts from corporate sources, like the Big Three U.S. automakers. “Everybody is suffering,” acknowledges Barbara Busby, who, with artistic director Bruce Millan, helped found the Detroit Repertory Theatre 54 years ago. Still a primarily White-run establishment, the theater continues to survive, as it has since its start, committed to racially diverse casting and shows that appeal to an 80 percent African-American audience. It relies heavily on group ticket sales to majority African-American nonprofits.
The Plowshares Theatre Company remains another artistic beacon in Detroit, even after having had to move, at one point, six times in nine years. Credit its 22-year history to producing works by seminal African-American playwrights such as Wilson, Pearl Cleage and Richard Wesley. Today, it’s the only professional Black theater company in Michigan.
“It’s been as difficult as running any other small business,” says co-founder Gary Anderson. “We’re not unlike a local bakery or a car dealership. We still are trying to achieve the same thing: grow our audience base and sustain it over time. We have a [theater] community that has great breadth and some depth, but it’s not organized.”
Over the next five years, Anderson wants to develop Plowshares into a theater company that can better cultivate the local talent pool. He’s seeking volunteers to help transform the company into an ensemble of 20 to 40 actors, directors, designers, musicians and playwrights to collaborate on plays for up to three years at a time. Anderson’s goal is to follow in the footsteps of Concept East’s founders and have a permanent home for Plowshares. Currently, he’s busy conducting acting workshops and planning his upcoming theater season.
Anderson has not been alone in preparing a new generation of theater professionals. Five years ago, Wayne State lured Aku Kadogo from Australia—where she had been working in theater since 1978—back to Detroit to head its Black Theatre program.
“It has been wonderful to have a platform at WSU,” says the Detroit native, now on leave and working as a visiting professor at Yong In University in Seoul, South Korea. “I have been quite specific about trying to present works that offer food for thought and keep us connected with some of our traditions.”
While at Wayne State, she directed such works as “Zora is My Name!” the 1989 PBS television drama adapted for the stage by Ruby Dee, and “The Talented Tenth” by Wesley. A Concept East alum, she’s also directed the show that made her a star on Broadway before going overseas: Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” Kadogo has even ventured into more contemporary works here, such as “Flow” by award-winning, hip hop stage performer Will Power.
She points out the future for African Americans in theater lies not only in performing. It means branching out, like her, behind the scenes into other areas like producing, writing, directing, stage managing and set designing.
Robert L. Douglas agrees. He is the force behind the Repertory Theatre of Hope, a community theater that started as a ministry of Southfield’s Hope United Methodist Church in 1991.
Douglas, who went out on his own seven years ago, was commissioned to write “The Life of Sam,” a play he directed about legendary singer Sam Cooke that was staged at Music Hall in late December and early January. He hopes to produce another musical he wrote, “Joy Road,” next year and pen even more musicals that are not in the mold of the gospel productions he says have dominated Black theater since the 1980s.
Also at Music Hall, in October theatergoers can look forward to “Mercy, Mercy Me,” a play about Marvin Gaye written and produced by Angela Barrow Dunlap. A local theater professional who has had a string of gospel play hits, her productions have toured the country.
New writers, directors and producers are cropping up, writing and putting on shows at venues like the Northwest Activities Center or the Boll Family YMCA Theatre.
Emerging Detroit playwright Octavia Lesley is working with three other writers to put on “Life: In 4-Part Harmony,” four one-act plays, at the International Institute next month. She’ll hone her writing skills at the Urban Playwrights Conference in Orlando, Fla., in December. In the meantime, she’s working on a play loosely based on her life called “What You Won’t Do for Love” to be performed at Wayne State in October, and an updated version of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“I love gospel stage plays. Don’t get me wrong, that’s my genre,” says Lesley, also a minister. “But a lot of times I think we local playwrights fall into the trap that our play has to have the grandma who is struggling or the relative who’s strung out on crack. I beg to differ. Detroit theater patrons are so much more intelligent. I really want more playwrights to step out and not be afraid to do something different.”
One can’t help but wonder if local Black theater’s seeming collapse happened because so many of those who trained and thrived here have relocated or died. “The city is in financial decay and people are moving out everyday,” says King. “The future of Black theater in Detroit will be placed right along side of Black people in Detroit."
Once Milner passed in 2004, for instance, “It was almost like part of the groove in the city as far as serious theater was concerned, went right along with him,” says acting veteran and coach, Harold Uriah Hogan.
Bill Harris, a poet, author, Wayne State English professor and prolific playwright, is one Detroit talent who stayed. There have been more than 100 productions of his plays in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles, such as “Stories About the Old Days,” which starred the late jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. In April, Denzel Washington and S. Epatha Merkerson starred in his play “Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone” at Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre in New York.
Named the 2011 Eminent Artist by the Kresge Foundation, Harris says, “Public taste has changed both in terms of what its notion of theater is, and the quality and content of the product available to them. The ’60s introduced politically relevant dramas whose intent was to uplift and inspire, not just personally but communally.”
He attributes the state of African-American theater in Detroit today to the fact that it has been “supplanted by cultural shifts to other forms of entertainment.” As for the future of independent local Black theater, says Harris, “There are young people, often with more business savvy than artistic or esthetic background, who are discovering its possibilities as a means of communication. If they are willing to learn the history and techniques, there is hope.”
ANGELA G. KING IS A DETROIT-BASED FILMMAKER, ACTRESS AND WRITER.