This past weekend, the Hope College Theatre Department virtually opened “Detroit ‘67.” It is a play that follows two siblings making ends meet with an after-hours joint in their basement during the Detroit riots in 1967. Playwright Dominique Morisseau brilliantly wove together family struggles, racial strife and Motown flair, and Hope students brought the rich story to life. I spoke with professor and Director Rich Perez and Alexander Johnson (’22), who plays Lank in the play. We discussed the process of putting this production together and what this show means to both of them, as well as the Hope community.
Last semester, a group of students read through the script of “Detroit ’67” in a live stream event. After running into complications with this semester’s intended production, Perez remembered a conversation he had with the cast: “When we first did the reading of “Detroit ’67” I asked the cast, ‘Hey, would you guys be interested [in performing]?’ They said yes, and here we are about to open.”
One of many things that makes this show different is the wide range of experience among the cast members. Perez said, “It runs the gamut from people who have had tons [of experience] and people who have little to none. I think that is our job to introduce folks who haven’t acted before—or just very little—to give them opportunities.”
Johnson had some experiences with main stage productions and ten-minute plays at Hope, as well as productions in high school. He really enjoyed working with the small cast of students from all different levels. He said, “It has made it more natural in a lot of ways. The show is very conversational in tone, and having people who come at the lines as just things they say to each other in natural conversation has actually worked really well.”
Although some differences have brought on welcomed challenges, some have proven more difficult. Trying to figure out moments of intimacy when actors have to be six feet apart is a difficult barrier to overcome. Perez explained, “[the play] has a phenomenal Motown soundtrack and so much of this world that we are visiting is dependent on the people’s love of the music and moments of dancing together and getting down and having a good time. My job is to at least try to still give a semblance of that intimacy.”
Putting together this show was different than other productions have been for Johnson. With the delay in coming back to campus, he thought it would feel rushed, but he has enjoyed the process: “It has kind of been a steady growth, [with] ebbs and flows. It’s all been building to the performance. What I’ve been looking forward to the most is actually getting out there and being able to perform it.”
Perez has many highlights from putting this show together: “On the most simple level, it is such a joy to watch courageous young people who perhaps would never have thought they would be in a play on the Hope stage.” He explained that he loved watching these students overcome challenges they have never faced before. Also, he said that another joy was seeing them “not only holding a large role in the play, but also being in the context of a story that speaks to all of us, [and] certainly represents a cross section of our culture that doesn’t get to be seen enough. Every time I think about that and see these beautiful Black bodies on our stage it just makes me feel really good. Good for them, and good for us because we need to be the hosts of those opportunities.”
Not only was the process of putting this production together fundamentally different than any on Hope’s campus, but “Detroit ’67” also accomplished a lot of firsts for the theatre department. Johnson explained, “this is the first main stage show on Hope’s campus that was written by a Black playwright and the first show to have a majority Black cast.” Doing this play right here, right now is a major step in the right direction. Johnson continued by saying, “Having a reading is one thing, some people tune in, some people don’t, it isn’t publicized as much…having a show with all of these milestones to be on the main stage I think is really great and at the very least a really necessary step.”
This didn’t happen coincidentally. “Doing this play at this time is really timely because of how prevalent the topic continues to be, right now specifically. I hope that audiences can kind of see that parallel for what it is,” Johnson said. He continued, saying, “I think that is probably the most important aspect of why we are putting it on now, because there are a lot of takeaways that can be applied to our current time.”
Perez also noted the timeliness of this production, and hopes that viewers will look at the story and imagine themselves in the middle of it. He said, “My biggest hope is that we continue to develop more empathy and caring for each other. Especially in these times where there is so much division in this country and there are so many challenges around racial equity and justice. I just hope it’s another example that we are a lot more similar than we are different.”
Perez noted that although this may be a first for Hope College theatre, it won’t be the last. He hopes, “First and foremost that students of color realize that there is a place for them in the department and that they are very welcome…[and] it is our responsibility to continue programming plays that speak to them.” He went on to say that, “We have always been welcoming to students of color, but if you keep coming to the theatre and you don’t see your story being told, why would you want to come back? I wouldn’t want to be a part of those plays where there isn’t a voice for me.”
Perez stressed the responsibility of the faculty to keep facilitating these opportunities and said, “Those are the two main things. That we hold up our end of the bargain and that eventually all students across the board will realize that theatre is a great place to express themselves, have fun, and learn a lot.”
As for “Detroit ’67”, Perez hopes that when students and other members of our community see it, they take the time to acknowledge the students who have made it possible. He said, “In many ways they are pioneers by being a part of this. It took a lot of courage for them to step up and I have so much admiration for them.”
Johnson hopes that lots of people see the play. He also hopes that after watching the play, viewers will open up to discussions about racial equity and justice: “The whole goal with pieces like this is to bring light to the issues brought up [by] the play and kind of open the floor to those kinds of discussions. I think that is the main goal for all of us, to bring this issue to a more public space, so we can move towards progress through discussion.”
Putting together “Detroit ’67” was unlike any other show Hope College theatre has done before, in many ways. From the casting, to the parameters of COVID, to the important narrative this story brings to light, It couldn’t have happened at a better time. This show represents a lot of firsts for the department and will not be the last. Not only did “Detroit ’67” break barriers in its own time and now, but it is a joy to experience. It is a well-executed production with compelling, dynamic relationships and an important story for all members of the Hope community.