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‘Greening’ Detroit with Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Detroit founder and artistic director Sam White PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

Shakespeare in Detroit founder and artistic director Sam White
PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Everything is going “green” in Detroit. With spring (hopefully) fast approaching, urban gardeners will soon be out tilling small farms throughout the city. Midtown’s Green Garage was specially developed to have a minimal impact on the environment. The recent introduction of the Chevy Volt even demonstrated the Motor City’s biggest industry was edging toward sustainability.

And now a troupe of homegrown talent is “greening” Shakespeare. Shakespeare in Detroit, a local Shakespearean production group, will stage performances of “Antony and Cleopatra” in the Recycle Here Center (1331 Holden Ave Detroit) from March 15-22.

Jennifer Cole, a fiery Cleopatra, during a chilly rehearsal PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTOS

Jennifer Cole, a fiery Cleopatra, during a chilly rehearsal
PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTOS

Samantha White, Shakespeare in Detroit’s founder and artistic director, grew up on the city’s northwest side and graduated from Mumford High School. When she was 8 years old, her mother heard her listening to the rap-group NWA. After White was warned once to turn off the music riddled with obscene lyrics, and she turned it back on, her mother took the boombox and replaced it with the complete works of Shakespeare.

She has been in love with the bard ever since. White went on to study theater and communications at University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne State University.

Shakespeare, White believes, is especially relevant to Detroiters because of his entrepreneurial skills. In addition to his writing and acting skills, Shakespeare was a model for cooperative economics and self-determination, building the first Globe Theatre where his plays were performed, and growing wealthy as a result.

Anton Bassey in the role of Enobarbus

Anton Bassey in the role of Enobarbus

“Whenever people talk about the resurgence of Detroit or reinvigorating the city, Shakespeare is perfect because we have centuries of proven community engagement,” White said. “People have given their hard-earned money in theatres all over the world… to see Shakespeare. Tourism is extremely important to the city. If you want to attract people here, have something that attracts people from all over the world and Shakespeare is it.”

Last year, White used her passion and her own entrepreneurial talents in founding the company and staging Othello in downtown’s Grand Circus Park. The response was overwhelming, attracting an incredibly diverse audience of city-dwellers and surburbanites alike ranging in age from 3 year olds to people in their 70s.

For this year’s production, White wanted to ensure the performance space made Shakespeare more accessible to people who have never seen his plays before, so she chose Recycle Here! — a perfect fit for an author whose work has been “recycled” over and over for centuries.

Originally the home of the Lincoln Motor company, according to their website, “Recycle Here! was formed in 2005 to “address the need for recycling options in the city of Detroit. What began as a grassroots, neighborhood, recycling event has evolved into a city-wide, fully-funded, neighborhood recycling program.” Over the years various artists have painted massive murals on the walls — inside and out — of the space, giving it a colorful carnivalesque vibe.

Referring to the building’s automotive legacy, White says, “Instead of us just performing in a space we’re also honoring Detroit’s rich heritage.”

The play will be performed in the round with the audience circling the action. “It’s not just happening in front of you; it’s happening to you,” White says. “There’s something to look at everywhere in this space.

Adding to the recycled design motif, percussionist Stephen Rich will provide the show’s musical accompaniment using repurposed buckets and tubs to in place of traditional drums.

555 gallery artists James Johnson and Ernest Camel crafted the play’s set art, painting Roman and Egyptian images graffiti-style stencils on discarded wooden pallets. Even the costumes, created by Cal Schwartz, were fashioned from recycled materials, repurposed clothes and fabric scraps. One of Cleopatra’s headdresses — now marvelously gilded — was made from part of a football and a toy dinosaur.

Livonia, Mich., native Kyle Grant, who directs the production, studied Shakespearean theater in England at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and has directed many of Shakespeare’s works since. He says perfecting the bard’s spoken verse is the most challenging part of the production. The language, he says, is mastered on a “case by case basis, scene by scene, actor to actor one line at a time.”

Rising to that challenge is essential because “audibility” is the most important thing according to Grant. “Whatever we can do to make the audience listen rather than watch, that’s my main goal,” he told the Michigan Citizen.

Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t read, he says, which meant 100 percent of their communication was audible. They couldn’t take notes to remember things, they had to develop recall through listening. “There’s this audible quality to the whole genre that’s largely lost to modern audiences.”

Cass Tech graduate, Jennifer Cole, starring as Cleopatra, has never performed Shakespeare before and says the language is “definitely a challenge for me, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to take on.” For White, Cole’s high energy and authenticity made her the perfect fit for the role.

White and Cole, both Detroit natives, see themes in “Antony and Cleopatra” that relate to modern-day Detroit, relating the tensions between Shakespeare’s stoic Romans and the Egyptians as analogous to tensions rising between long-term city residents and newcomers identified as “hipsters.”

“There’s so much to work with here,” says Cole. “There are so many opportunities in the city.” Gentrification, she says, can be a touchy issue. “I want Detroit to be all it can be. I want people to come in and help it become a thriving city… but I don’t (want to see) people kicked out.”

In the tragedy of “Antony and Cleopatra,” she sees a warning — and hope. Antony and Cleopatra are able to transcend their disparate upbringings and help Egypt thrive together. It is Rome — ossified and unbending, unreceptive to change or history — that metes destruction upon the lovers and their great empire.

Speaking of Detroit’s future, Cole says the most important first step is to open up the lines of communication, between old and new Detroiters. “Both sides need to be open-minded and communicate,” she says.

For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.ShakespeareinDetroit.com.

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