Column: Meant to be: Shakespeare and Detroit

Ingrid Jacques

Shakespeare started out as a punishment for Sam White. But over time, the plays became a pleasure.

White credits her mother for instilling this passion. When she would get caught listening to rap music, Shakespeare was the discipline. By the time she was a teenager, however, she was smitten with the Bard.

Now, Shakespeare is her life. White founded Shakespeare in Detroit in 2012, and the theater company is in its fourth year of offering plays to Detroiters. More than 8,000 people have experienced the timeless tragedies and comedies at sites throughout Detroit.

“Hamlet” opens this weekend at New Center Park, with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Detroit News is the media sponsor this season.

While White is a devotee of the Bard, she’s equally committed to her hometown.

“I’m a Detroiter through and through,” says White, who grew up on Seven Mile.

And she believes that a vigorous and diverse cultural scene is essential to the city’s comeback.

That’s why she came home in 2008, after a stint in Las Vegas, where her dream of making it as a stand-up comedian fizzled. It was her time out West that inspired her to start her own theater company. She saw several Shakespeare plays performed in the Utah desert and decided she could do the same in the spaces she loved in her city.

In 2012, she put a business plan together and launched her company. But the timing was not stage perfect.

Just a few weeks before Shakespeare in Detroit’s first performance at Grand Circus Park in August 2013, the city declared it was filing for bankruptcy. White wasn’t sure if anyone would show up for “Othello.”

“That was a little scary,” White says. “There had never been Shakespeare in the park before. I had no expectations.”

But 500 people came to the show. White believes that in times of trouble, art is especially vital. So it made sense that during Detroit’s trials, Shakespeare could lend a hand.

“Because the city was going through so much turmoil, it was important to have escape,” White says. “What better way to do it than to see some really beautiful storytelling underneath the stars outside of Comerica Park?”

Since then, the company has put on 12 shows, but none as big as this season’s production of “Hamlet,” directed by Dean Gabourie, former associate artistic director at the acclaimed Stratford, Ontario, festival.

John Freeman, a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, says Detroit is the perfect place for Shakespeare. The Bard would have understood the city’s gritty underside, given his working class background.

“Shakespeare was a Detroiter,” Freeman says. “He knew the human condition.”

White integrates Detroit into each performance. The city becomes another character. And the focus on site-specific productions has highlighted many of Detroit’s historic and beautiful places. The plays have taken place at a historic mansion, a recycling center, a high school and several parks, among other locales.

“We are as much Shakespeare as we are Detroit,” White says. “Our work is really to emphasize the glory of what is Detroit. You don’t need a set — the set is the space.”

As White looks toward to the future, she has plans to scale Shakespeare in Detroit’s work, and she wants to give her crew a permanent home base. She also wants her company to be her sole focus. Currently, she has to take on other jobs to make ends meet. This year, she landed a fellowship at the Oregon Shakespeare Company — one of the best in the country. And while that’s proven an amazing experience for White, she’s looking forward to devoting more time to the playwright in her own town.

But her overall vision remains the same.

“We are Shakespeare for, by and of the city of Detroit,” says White. “That’s what makes us unique. We really have to remain authentic even as we grow and evolve.”