Sam White: Shakespeare added to Detroit's repertoire

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Sam White’s life changed when her mother handed her a musty old tome of Shakespeare’s plays. She was 8 at the time. 

Reading the Bard was White’s punishment for breaking the rules and listening to rap music on her boombox. 

Shakespeare in Detroit founder and director Sam White watches a rehearsal of “Hamlet,” which opens this weekend with performances at New Center Park.

Yet her punishment swiftly morphed into a gift as White discovered she loved reading the plays and where they took her. 

“It gave me the ability to travel with my mind’s eye,” White says. “By the time I was 18, I went to Rome, Egypt, Verona, Venice -- all these places that maybe we couldn’t afford to go to in real life but my imagination took me there, and that’s why I’m here today.”

More:Meet the 2019 Michiganians of the Year

Shakespeare offered White a purpose that has defined her life. 

She wasn’t content to keep Shakespeare to herself, either, and that led her to found Shakespeare in Detroit seven years ago. As artistic director for her theater company, White has worked tirelessly to bring high-quality performances to the city each year and has put on more than a dozen productions that have reached 13,000 people.

The plays, including “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “As You Like It” and “Merchant of Venice,”  have taken place at parks and other unique spaces throughout Detroit.

White, a Detroit native and a graduate of Mumford High School, knew she wanted to start this theater company in her hometown. And she believes Shakespeare is a perfect fit for the Motor City. Just as Shakespeare is an international language, Detroit boasts a similar widespread familiarity for its role as the birthplace of the automobile. 

As Detroit makes its comeback, White understands the integral role of a thriving arts scene.

“Businesses will bring people to Detroit, but the arts will make them stay,” she says. “If people don’t have quality of life here, they won’t want to raise there families here. So something like Shakespeare in Detroit isn't just a fun thing to have, it’s essential to the success of the city over the next several years.”

Michiganian of the Year Sam White, 38, stands inside the Library Room at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

While putting on performances is a vital part of Shakespeare in Detroit, working with youth in Detroit is what White loves most about her job. 

Through a project called Shakespeare STEAM, White is currently spending time in three Detroit schools, exposing more than 100 students in grades 3-12 to the art and science of putting on a play. Two of the schools, Clippert Academy and Detroit School of Arts, are within the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The other is Boggs School, a nonprofit charter school. 

“To be able to go back and see kids who look like me, who are me, having an experience that I had at 8 years old that changed my life is the reason I get up and do this work every day.” 

Name: Sam White

Age: 38

Occupation: Founding artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Wayne State University; 2017 Arts Management Fellowship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; and Classical Directing Fellowship at The Old Globe (San Diego, 2019)

Family: Single 

Why honored: For her work in bringing Shakespeare to Detroit, and for teaching students in the city’s schools about the art of theater