July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am


Bringing Shakespeare to Detroit's renaissance

Shakespeare in Detroit needs help bringing art to the city. (AP)

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves” is one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a line that I use as an affirmation to myself everyday as I aspire to create a theater company here in my hometown, Detroit.

I haven’t always loved where I am from.

I can remember going out of town as a teenager and visiting other states, and when people would ask where I was from, I would reluctantly answer: I’m from Detroit. I didn’t want to tell them because I would always get the same reaction that went something like, “Ooh. I’ve heard awful things about that city. I’m glad you’ve survived.”

It was always interesting to learn that most of those people had never even visited the city. They just heard from someone who heard from someone else about Detroit, or they saw a news story on some national media outlet — you know that same old news story about how violent or poor or whatever other negative adjective people could come up with to describe us.

I can remember just wanting to grow up and move away because it seemed like the best thing to do.

Detroit’s reputation sometimes precedes itself and it seeped into my consciousness as a child. I can even remember — and I still encounter — people who are from the city who have a ton of awful things to say about it.

I think the negative images and hearsay have crept into the hearts and minds of a lot of people because, let’s face it, for years the stories about Detroit haven’t been flattering.

Eventually, I grew up and moved away — Las Vegas, to be exact — to try to discover what the world had to offer outside of my city. I randomly chose that as my destination, packed my Saturn Ion and made a life for myself thousands of miles away from Detroit. And I am so glad I did that because something radical happened to me while I was there.

I have always loved Shakespeare — ever since my mom handed me his complete works when I was eight years old. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap music so if I wanted to engage with some cool lyrics, my only option was to open that book.

While I was in Vegas I was invited on a bus trip to Utah to visit their Shakespeare festival, and I immediately said yes because I had been in love with the bard for years by that time.

That trip to Cedar City, Utah, changed my life. It gave me an idea.

There had never been a fully dedicated Shakespeare company here in Detroit with shows all year round, a Shakespeare-in-the-park experience and an outreach program. And what is good enough for a town in the middle of the desert out West could surely happen in Detroit with its array of historical parks, sites and venues.

I decided to move home a few weeks after my trip to Utah and to use what I know, Shakespeare, to birth a newfound hometown pride within myself and, hopefully, inspire it in others as well.

Getting acclimated to life in Michigan along with the fear of starting a business or leading such a large endeavor prevented me from starting the company right away. But, eventually, I realized that if I didn’t do it, there was a possibility Shakespeare in Detroit would never happen. So in 2013, the company finally made its debut in front of an audience of more than 500 during a free performance of “Othello” at Grand Circus Park.

Six months later we performed “Antony and Cleopatra” at Recycle Here — the original home of the Lincoln Motor Co. — and that show nearly sold out.

A couple of months after that, a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” inspired 800 people to come out and see us at New Center Park.

It is our hope at Shakespeare in Detroit to continue to impact lives through the bard (our free shows in particular have engaged with people of all ages, races, backgrounds and experiences, many of whom have never engaged with Shakespeare due to lack of access).

If you’re constantly feeding children that the place they are from is a horrible place, doesn’t that make them feel like maybe they aren’t good enough, either?

In my dreams, one little kid sees me and thinks: My city might have some issues — like every other city in the world, by the way — but I am from a great place, I have great ideas and I can make my city even better if I stay and use what I’ve got.

In case you’re wondering, when people ask me where I am from these days, I proudly say Detroit.

Seven Mile and Greenfield, to be exact.

Samantha White is owner of Shakespeare in Detroit.