In the late ’60s, Xavier Nicholas interviewed subjects ranging from then-Michigan Gov. George Romney to Detroit policemen to everyday Detroiters about their experiences with the 1967 Detroit riot. Nicholas has held on to the interview tapes ever since because, he says, he “kind of always knew they were important.”
“I’ve been carrying these things around for the last 47 years,” says Nicholas, a retired English and literature professor who now lives in Montgomery, Alabama. “Can you imagine that? And I’ve been trying to do something with them. I wasn’t just sitting on them. But it just never happened.”
This month Nicholas’ work will finally be introduced to a larger audience through the play “Dream Deferred: Detroit, 1967,” which runs at Matrix Theatre Company, opening Friday and running through June 25.
The series of dramatic monologues presents what Matrix artistic director Megan Buckley-Ball describes as “a true slice of all the voices of the time.”
“They’re all such unique stories,” Buckley-Ball says. “Nobody is telling the same story as the next person, so we really wanted to get as much of it in as we could.”
Buckley-Ball, Nicholas, director David Wolber and script consultant Harvey Reed culled the 36 interviews in the play from an initial set of 42 interviews that Nicholas submitted to Matrix. Five actors will make multiple costume changes to portray the 36 interviewees, who include residents, first responders, reporters, community and business leaders. Nicholas says he can’t even estimate how much more footage he has on top of that.
Author Studs Terkel’s acclaimed oral histories inspired Nicholas to start his project when he moved to Detroit in 1967 to take a job teaching junior high school after he graduated from Tuskegee University.
“I was this outsider coming into this city that had just blown up, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on,” says Nicholas, who also was a doctoral student at University of Michigan during that time. “That’s what motivated me to go and talk to people.”
Nicholas never got around to his original plan of publishing his interviews in written form. But Anna Deavere Smith’s 1994 play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which dramatizes verbatim interviews with those involved in L.A.’s 1992 riots, got him thinking about adapting his work to the stage.
It would take the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riot to finally turn that idea into a reality. Living in Montgomery, Nicholas heard from Detroit friends about the many events being planned here to commemorate the riot. When he approached Matrix about adapting his material, Buckley-Ball says the idea was a no-brainer for the company.
“(Nicholas) wasn’t on the streets, per se, when the rebellion was happening,” she says. “But just the way in which he sought out each of these individuals just to get another story, to get as much as he could to really be able to portray a complete picture, it’s just lovely.”
On top of the basic chronological milestone of the riot’s 50th anniversary, Nicholas says the issue of police clashes with communities of color is “even more prevalent now.” He says he doesn’t presume to offer a simple solution to that problem or to “run a particular political line,” but rather to present a thorough investigation that creates greater insight on the events of ’67.
“I don’t think you can understand the past,” says Nicholas, who will be in town to attend performances this weekend. “You can’t ever understand what happened 50 years ago, but I think we should think about it and try to reflect on it.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
‘Dream Deferred: Detroit, 1967’
Friday through June 25
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
A Q&A session is planned Sunday with creators David Wolber, Xavier Nicholas and Megan Buckley, and June 9 with the cast.
Matrix Theatre Company
2730 Bagley, Detroit
Tickets $20 for adults; $15 for seniors, students, active military personnel and veterans