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Detroit Rep stages 60th season, casts for the future

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

The Detroit Repertory Theatre’s diamond anniversary season will likely be the last for co-founders Bruce Millan and Barbara Busby, who plan to hand over the keys to a new generation soon after the season ends next spring.

Millan, who serves as the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s artistic and managing director, has been with the company since it formed in 1957. He says the impending changing of the guard is as much motivated by his age as his desire to find new ways to keep the theater thriving in Detroit’s shifting economy.

Actresses, from left, Sandra Love Aldridge, Leah Smith and Yolanda Jack rehearse lines in a scene for DRT’s season opener “The Realization of Emily Linder.”

“Because of the recession and the bankruptcy of Detroit, we have had to dig down and really sacrifice, and we’re starting to come out of it,” he says. “That’s all part of the survival process. There’s no question: If we want this theater to continue, we have to pass the baton. And we have already started to recruit people who want to be a part of the continuance of the theater.”

Leah Smith, the marketing and development director, says the theater is working hard to ensure its new staff receives proper pay, something that’s long been a struggle for the company.

“The theater has been managed by people who have lived on very low wages,” Smith says. “The goal is to raise more money so people can get better wages than what the administration has been here.”

Millan adds that he doesn’t want his successors to have to struggle to make ends meet the way he has in the past.

“We have no intention of trying to say to new visionaries, ‘You have to sacrifice. You have to go back to the way we did it in the beginning,’ ” he says. “No, that’s truly going backwards. What we have to do is try to go forward.”

The Detroit Repertory Theatre, which averages about 60,000 patrons each year, has weathered multiple economic recessions, in addition to overcoming decades of “white flight” and the decay of its neighborhood off the Lodge Freeway on Woodrow Wilson. Currently, the theater’s dollar-a-week subscriber-based campaign is within $1,500 of reaching its $1 million goal, and the new season opens with a new $20,000 grant from UAW Ford.

The theater, which has a dollar-a-week subscriber-based fundraising campaign, is close to its $1 million goal.

Among its many fundraising efforts, the theater holds two annual events — a “Black Tie Celebration,” which is 6:30 p.m. Nov. 19, and a “Red Night,” which occurs the Saturday closest to Valentine’s Day. Organizers are hoping that these events this year will generate enough funds help attract the new leadership.

Millan says reaching the 60-year milestone for the theater is not only due to its dedicated subscribers, but also to its progressive casting and hiring policies. Since its inception, when it was an interracial touring company during the era of racial segregation, the Detroit Repertory Theatre has prided itself on challenging the regional theater world’s status quo by casting roles without regard to gender or ethnicity. It moved to the current site in 1963.

“What we felt was that there should be something a little more relevant to our times, and also at the same time I was concerned with the racial segregation that was going on,” Millan recalls of the theater’s early days. “Our vision has remained, and that’s also a sad comment because it means there has been a minimal amount of change in the way we conduct our lives.”

The theater’s home since 1963 sits off the Lodge on Woodrow Wilson.

The theater’s 2016-2017 season launches Thursday with a champagne toast and the premiere of Richard Strand’s “The Realization of Emily Linder.” The play’s titular heroine, a retired French professor, claims to have predicted the exact day and hour of her death.

Strand, a native Michiganian playwright now based in California, explores themes of life, death and family with a profound sense of humor as Linder quarrels with her two grown daughters about her claim to be clairvoyant and her unusual funeral plans.

While previous performances have featured an all-white cast, the Rep’s veteran director Harry Wetzel has assembled an interracial ensemble, including Sandra Love Aldridge in the title role, supported by Jaclynn Cherry, Yolanda Jack and Leah Smith.

Aldridge, Smith and Jack are all Detroiters, and Cherry hails from Madison Heights. Jack is also the director of public programming for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and Cherry is an accountant by day, who also performs with as one half of Natural Born Killaz, a local improv troupe.

Aldridge, a retired school teacher who joined the theater in 1991 and teaches in the Repertory Arts in Education Program, says she feels other companies in the region might not have given her the leading role in “Emily Linder.”

“At the Rep, it has nothing to do with gender or ethnicity,” she says. “Normally you expect your work as an actor to be accepted by talent, of course. But I’m pretty sure there are many directors of theaters who don’t feel that non-traditional casting is the way to go. As an actor of color, we certainly have had a greater opportunity to perform at the Rep than we would have anywhere else.”

Wetzel — who joined the theater in 1989 as an actor in Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” and has gone on to build and design sets in addition to directing — says he enjoyed the freedom he had in casting Strand’s play.

“It’s a rainbow of ethnic heritages on stage,” he says. “We hire the best actor for the best role. It’s very inclusive and very diverse, and it’s very exciting. It all boils down to the performance, the talent of the actor.”

Bruce Millan, a theater co-founder, in a 1990 photo at a previous site, says he’s leaving after this season.

He says he admires how the theater has endured social struggles throughout its history.

“You look back in the history, and they were touring around with multiple ethnicities in the cast,” he says. “Some schools wouldn’t book them because of that, so Mr. Millan said, ‘Instead of us going to them, let’s find a spot and have them come to us.’ ”

“The Realization of Emily Linder” runs through Dec. 23. The season continues with the world premiere of Kermit Frazier’s “Firepower” (Jan. 5 through March 12) And on March 23, it’ll be the world premiere of New York-based playwright James Armstrong’s “Capital,” through May 14.

Millan says he’s as proud of his final season with the theater as any other.

“We are sort of still considered the new kids on the block,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned we’re in the vanguard. We’re still setting the standard. Our longevity, in some respects, indicates how effective we’ve been in reaching the community. We don’t preach it. We show by example.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Detroit Repertory Theatre

13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit

Shows begin weekly at 8:30 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Sat., and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sun.

Advance admission: $17, general admission: $20

(313) 868 1347

detroitreptheatre.com

The 2016-2017 Season

Nov. 3-Dec. 23 “The Realization of Emily Linder” by Richard Strand

Jan. 5-March 12 “Firepower” by Kermit Frazier

March 23-May 14 “Capital” by James Armstrong

May 25-June 25 “Countdown to the Happy Day” by Thomas W. Stephens

A diamond fete

60th Anniversary Black Tie

Celebration

6:30 p.m. Nov. 19

Honorary co-chairs:

James Settles Jr., vice president, UAW

Bill Dirksen, vice president of labor affairs, Ford Motor Co.

Keynote speaker: S. Epatha Merkerson

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson

Mistress of Ceremonies: Amyre Makupson

Tickets $75, additional donations welcome