For much of the country, Detroit serves as an example of the lost American dream. To them, Detroit is nothing but urban decay, a murder capital, somewhere to avoid. But for the people of this region, Detroit is so much more. It’s not only a major industrial center. It’s a place where many can trace back their roots. For decades, the city was a melting pot for European immigrants, Southern sharecroppers, rich and poor, black and white. But long-standing segregation and institutionalized racism within the city led to one of the most violent civil clashes in U.S. history.
Spirit of Detroit
Saturday & Sunday at 7 p.m.
Museum of Art
Thick black clouds of smoke billow from buildings; snipers sit on rooftops; tanks of the Michigan National Guard roll through the city streets. These are the images that come to mind when talking about the 1967 Detroit riot. However, the emotional responses to these images vary greatly from person to person. A new play examines this riot vs. rebellion point of view and also the similarities that bind Detroiters of all races.
“Spirit of Detroit,” written by native Detroiter and University alum Mercilee M. Jenkins, examines the turbulent events of 1967, including the riot-rebellion and the Algiers Motel Incident, in which police murdered three unarmed black youths.
Residential College drama lecturer Katherine Mendeloff, a close friend of Jenkins, will be staging the play with students from her course, Contemporary Plays on Race, in conjunction with the LSA Theme Semester “Understanding Race.” Each production will be performed at the Helmut Stern Auditorium at the UMMA and will be followed by discussions on the impact on the city.
The play is told from the perspective of two characters that have grown up together in the same East-side neighborhood. Anthony, an African-American man, and Lucy, a white woman, experience the violence together.
“The main focus of the play is the relationship between these two young people,” Mendeloff said. “We see them as children, we see them as older adults, and we see them primarily as teenagers caught up in the events of the riot-rebellion.”
“Spirit of Detroit” examines the role of race in terms of how the violence was perceived by citizens. Though the events were largely categorized as a riot, for marginalized minorities it was an act of protest, stemming from frustrations with blatantly racist policies and power structures.
“The riot-rebellion had a lot to do with a long-brewing animosity in the city between the white police and the black community,” Mendeloff said. “That’s where rebellion comes in, and where you’ll hear white people say it was a riot, and black people say it was a rebellion.”
For many, the violence was civil disobedience, as the African-American community of the city faced marginalization and discrimination, with no recourse in terms of political advocacy.
“It was something born out of a long history of abuse that just got sparked, it wasn’t coming out of nowhere,” Mendeloff explained. “The city government was all white, the state government was all white and the police department was all white and tended to target young black men.”
Productions that deal with such heavy topics can often be uncomfortable for audiences, but Jenkins’s play tries to capture varying facets of the situation.
“It’s actually a very funny play. Lee (Jenkins) writes wonderful dialogue, and the relationship between Lucy and Anthony is really engaging and somewhat flirtatious,” Mendeloff said. “It’s not like a history lesson, and it’s not doom and gloom. It has a lot of different aspects.”
“Spirit of Detroit,” much like the residents of Detroit, maintains an optimistic outlook on the future of the city.
“The play focuses a lot more positively on the future of Detroit,” Mendeloff said. “That was something that I felt was important because there are so many people doing really good work in Detroit, trying to bring change to the city.”