Detroit ’67 plays: Detroiters tell their own stories
A new community play weaves oral history, poetry and dance together to tell the stories of the role women and girls played in the ’67 riots.
“AFTER/LIFE,” by Lisa Biggs and directed by Kristin Horton, has a narrow focus: a party held for soldiers returning from Vietnam at the blind pig on 12th Street and Clairmount on July 23, where the events began.
The showings are free, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and “no one will be turned away,” Biggs said. The play contributes to the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward: A Community Engagement Project.
“Since the events of ’67 so much shaped contemporary peoples’ understanding of the city, the city is being ghosted — not in the sense that it’s been taken out, but misperceptions of what happened affect how people see the city today and that’s haunting to me, very haunting,” Biggs said.
For Biggs, focusing on the role women and girls played gives credit where credit is due.
“Even though they’re not credited in the published histories, women are the ones getting information to people about where to get food, water, and when the meetings are happening to organize and entreat public officials to act at the local, state and national level,” Biggs said.
Vignettes and monologues compose the hourlong play. Two poems written by actor Debora Chenault-Green, who was 12 during the riots, bookend the piece, which features dances choreographed to Motown hits.
“AFTER/LIFE” is staged in the lobby of the Williams Center, where audience members will sit around the cast and intricate sets will be substituted with a handful of props and costumes.
Bigg’s project collecting oral histories began when she moved to Michigan from Chicago in 2013 to teach at Michigan State University’s Residential College for Arts and Humanities. Wanting to learn about the riots, she asked her students, many of whom knew little beyond rumors. She encouraged them to go home and speak with parents or grandparents. One phone call resulted in a conference call with many retired Detroit grandmothers living in the same building in Florida.
“When I speak with people of their memories of ’67, the memories are very present with them,” she said. “While the story is based on the past, it’s something they are telling and retelling today ... those experiences are alive with them now.”
Biggs met Horton in 1998 through the Living Stage Theatre Company, an improvisational social change theater in Washington, D.C. Horton said their shared training informs their approach to “AFTER/LIFE.”
Horton said the group has tried to situate the events historically while drawing connections to the present.
“By witnessing and listening to the stories from the community, we’ve learned that revisiting ’67 is an immediate, necessary, and urgent step toward liberation today,” Horton said. “It might be 50 years later, but in many ways the rebellion continues.”
7 p.m. Thurs.-Fri., noon Sat., 7 p.m. July 27-28 and 2 p.m. July 29
Joseph Walker Williams Recreation Center, 8431 Rosa Parks Blvd.
Free arts festival in the park Saturday
MSU Partnership office: (313) 309-1683 or detroit67afterlife.eventbrite.com
Also about the Detroit riots/rebellion
Dominique Morriseau’s play “Detroit ’67,” performed nationwide, will be performed seven times for free in Detroit through Detroit Public Theatre from July to October.
The play is part two of a three-part Detroit play cycle including “Paradise Blue,” in the 40s, and “Skeleton Crew,” in 2008. It follows a brother and sister leading normal lives and throwing late-night basement parties on 12th and Clairmount after their parents’ deaths, and how the riots impacted them directly.
“Last year, many of our audience members said they resonated with the way Dominique’s writing gives a feel for what a ’60s family is like, that culture and that life,” said Sarah Clare Corporandy, producing artistic director of Detroit Public Theatre. “It really personalizes it, it takes a magnifying glass to what happened.”
The play has been produced 11-14 times nationwide since its premier at Detroit Public Theatre as a workshop in 2013, Corporandy said. This tour, with a fresh cast and a smaller set, takes the show to seven locations for free performances through a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant.
The play is one of many cultural events comprising the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward: A Community Engagement Project.
Free tickets are available, first come, first serve, one hour before each performance:
■Noon Sunday at Gordon Park (12th and Clairmount), Detroit
■7 p.m. July 26, 27 at at Rosedale Park Community Center, 18445 Scarsdale, Detroit
■7 p.m. Aug. 10 at DIA Rivera Court, Detroit
■6 p.m. Oct. 4 at Renaissance High School, 6565 W. Outer Dr., Detroit
■7 p.m. Oct. 11 at Matrix Human Services — Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, 13560 E. McNichols, Detroit
■2 p.m. Oct. 14 at Grosse Pointe War Memorial, 32 Lake Shore Rd., Grosse Point Farms