Was As If We Were Never There":
Recovering Detroit's Past for History and Theater
This project began in a conversation about Sophocles'
tragedy Philoctetes and the ancient Greek practice of combining
the telling of history with the rituals of theater. It was designed
to address two problems I had encountered in teaching a course on
the history of Detroit.
First, although the city celebrated its three hundredth anniversary
this year with the Detroit 300 festival, it is in most respects
a twentieth-century boomtown. Much of its early history has been
erased by the power and speed of its dynamic expansion in the first
half of the century--and its equally dramatic contraction in the
second half. The dominant historical discourse is one of rise and
fall, spiked by an immense nostalgia for the city that once (briefly)
was.1 The recent past is often deployed as a cautionary
tale about what goes wrong with urban spaces when racism, white
flight, and industrial evacuation undercut a city's viability.2
Such a historical construction places Detroit in a past that is
now lost and irretrievable and leaves current residents, especially
the African American descendants of those who came to the city during
the Great Migration, dangling at the end of history with little
hope and no agency. There is a strange disconnect between the history
of the city and the people who live in it.
Second, although Detroit is only forty minutes' drive from the
Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan (UM), a wide chasm
separates the average undergraduate from the people of the city.
This is not only a racial and class divide, but a gap of purposes
in which the large research university tends to treat Detroit as
a resource or laboratory, extracting data in the production of knowledge
while returning little to the city. Recently, spurred on by the
commitment of Provost Nancy Cantor to make the university a "public
good," the graduate and professional schools have tried to
overcome this legacy and the distrust that goes with it.3
But little of the new orientation has reached undergraduates. Indeed,
my own rather traditional way of teaching Detroit history seemed
to reinforce distance: my students did history projects in the city,
interviewing residents, poking around archives, looking into
and at the city like spectators, and producing essays, term
projects, and research papers that I read, graded, and filed away,
lifting here and there a fact or a citation for my own use. But
I was open to new possibilities when, in a conversation with my
colleague at the Residential College Kate Mendeloff (who had extensive
background in community-based theater), the idea arose to use oral
histories as the basis for creating stage pieces. We then received
strong institutional and funding support from Professor David Scobey,
whose Arts of Citizenship program is mandated to build cultural
links between the academy and the community.
As initially conceived, the project had three aims: first, to develop
a course that took undergraduates out of the classroom to engage
residents of the city directly through the collection of life histories;
second, to combine interview work with theater improvisations that
could be re-presented to our informants as performance pieces that
they could react to; and third, to do this work in collaboration
with Detroiters, using the resources and skills of the university
in ways that would prove relevant to residents and would yield usable
cultural products that could be left behind--"owned"--by
our partners in the city.
How we did this depended on whom we found to work with. We had
to figure out which of the possible partners had compatible objectives
and fungible calendars. University participants came to the table
concerned with contact hours, weeks in the semester, term projects
and assignments, not to mention final products and gradable results.
People in the community were on a very different clock, with aims
that were both more immediate and longer-running than a university
semester. Luckily, in our exploratory discussions, we struck up
a relationship with Rick Sperling, artistic director of the Mosaic
Youth Theater of Detroit, a remarkably talented troupe of some seventy-five
high school students recruited by audition from all over the city.
The group produced an original play every year. Sperling was looking
for material that would contribute to the Detroit 300 celebration
in 2001, and since his is a theater of young people, we thought
we might build a play around interviews with Detroit residents about
growing up in the city--across racial and ethnic groups, in different
communities, and over several decades. For us, the scheme promised
to place college students in multiple roles--as learners/researchers,
collaborators, and mentors--while helping develop a product that
would remain with, and be of use to, our Detroit partners.
In our initial plan, Mendeloff and I were to run a semester-long
course in which high school and college students, working in teams,
would conduct interviews with Detroiters of various ages about what
it was like to grow up in the city. We would then take the material
gathered to Mosaic rehearsals for improvisational work that would
produce both scenes for the play and problems for my students to
investigate further. Over the course of a semester, the students
conducted some thirty interviews and did theater and playwriting
exercises with the material. The work stretched our organizational
capacities and proved very demanding of the students' time, especially
that of our high school partners, making stable interview teams
impossible to sustain. As the work proceeded, moreover, the Mosaic
students became particularly fascinated by the interviews with African
Americans who had grown up during the 1940s in Black Bottom, the
neighborhood on the near east side where black migrants from the
South had been effectively confined. It was on these stories that
our work began to focus.
Hastings Street, the main commercial strip running north-south
through Black Bottom, was once the center of east European Jewish
settlement, but in the interwar years it became a bustling "mixed
use" center of African American business, sociability, night
life, and underworld activity. All the big bands, jazz artists,
and blues singers of the day performed in its bars and juke joints;
the street had one of the highest concentrations of black-owned
businesses in the country; and the nearby flats and tenements formed
a classic "ethnic community" with people of different
class and degree living side by side in housing stock that was increasingly
crowded and run-down.4 The war boom of the 1940s brought
the twin trajectory of dynamism and decay to a climax, and in the
1950s, the city administration attacked what it called "urban
blight" by bulldozing Black Bottom to lay Interstate 75 right
down Hastings Street, obliterating even its memory.5
"It was," said one of our informants, "as if we were
Or so it seemed. Not one of the youngsters in the Mosaic company--95
percent of them African American--had ever heard of Hastings Street.
Their school libraries held nothing about it; their history texts
were silent. We sent them to ask their grandparents, elderly relatives,
and neighbors about Hastings Street, and they came back brimming
with stories. Everyone over fifty had something to tell them, and
it quickly became clear that we had tapped a gold mine of material
rich in theatrical potential but also deeply meaningful to our Detroit
partners. Given their growing excitement, we provided tape recorders,
questions, and training in interview techniques, then relied on
the Mosaic kids to do the interviewing. From then on, the coming-of-age
theme blended into a project of recovery, in which high school students
discovered broad aspects of their city's past previously invisible
to them, and their elders found in the curiosity of the kids reasons
to remember and ways, through stories, of instructing and exhorting
a younger generation. The stories captured the many deep contradictions
of the historic black community: the pride of survival; the nostalgia
for neighbors who watched and took care; a familiarity with card
games, prostitution, and the numbers; and the lack of contact with
a larger white world, coupled with a sustained recognition that
this had been an enforced community, created by segregation. As
this intergenerational dialogue took shape, the role of the UM participants
changed: with the second semester, we brought graduate students
into the project and turned over to UM undergraduates the responsibilities
for researching, framing, and contextualizing the stories that our
community partners discovered. Eventually they created a lobby exhibit
of text and photographs to travel with the Mosaic play and provide
the audience with a historical context.
Mosaic Theater actors tell stories about growing up dancing
in the Detroit neighborhood of Black Bottom. Photograph
by david smith Photography. Courtesy Mosaic Theater.
The project took an especially important turn when one of our informants
mentioned an after-school social group at Black Bottom's Miller
High School called the Y-Gees (for Youth Guidance). One of our graduate
researchers discovered that this was one of several programs the
city created after the race riot of 1943 to keep high school kids
occupied and off the streets, that it had been sponsored by the
legendary Loving brothers, one of them the first black academic
teacher in the Detroit school system, and that it had sustained
a small theater company and singing ensemble in the two short years
it lasted. High schoolers asked their informants about the Y-Gees
and, to our surprise, brought back reports from several who had
been members of the club. We brought these original Y-Gees to a
meeting with Mosaic. After small-group interviews, the whole company
reconvened, and one by one, the students retold stories they had
heard; the elders listened, elaborated, corrected, and added details,
showing the youngsters a dance step or a cheerleading routine. Curiosity
mixed with recollection to elicit a shared history, and Sperling
began to see a story line and the shape of a play: a Y-Gees meeting
in 1944 in which the members try to invent a play about their lives.
The Mosaic kids would impersonate youngsters of another era and
tell "their" stories, using what they had learned from
their elders. There would be music, dance, and laughter, but also
a war and a race riot to capture. What stories should they include?
How would these be enacted? What did each capture or miss about
"their" lives in Black Bottom? This would be the play--about
a play--and the very process of exploration and creation that the
students had been through in developing the dramatic material would
become what in theater is called the through-line of the play.
The project was now in the possession of our community collaborators.
UM faculty and students continued to help with the interviews, participate
in the improvisations, follow up on questions of fact that arose,
and offer comment and feedback, but the play belonged to Mosaic.
Early in 2001, Sperling assembled the scenes in progress and wrote
a script. From then on, the company was working from the text, altering,
modifying, refining it, but also now framed by it. Several draft
performances before an audience of informants gave elders further
opportunity to talk back to the kids--correcting facts, recalling
more details, debating the location of a store or the slang used
for everyday things--and by their enthusiasm telling these young
people that what they were doing was important for the whole community.
"I never knew so many people cared so much about Detroit,"
said one Mosaic student. "This has been the most important
thing that ever happened to me," announced an elder Y-Gee.
With each session, the play got sharper and more accurate, but it
also became a collaboration in which a whole community was involved
in the business of shaping a history of itself. The university people
were now witnesses on the sidelines. It was one of the happiest
moments of my life as a teacher.
In the end, the collaboration with Mosaic and the imperatives of
producing a play subordinated my history syllabus to the agendas
of our Detroit partners. Yet what they wanted to do demanded historical
material, and this took my students beneath the surface of events.
It opened questions about social history and the work of memory
in a context that gave their historical inquiries immediate relevance.
My students learned history with a purpose; the processes of locating
a site, tracing a name, and reviving a slang expression or a way
of dressing were not esoteric problems for the classroom, but essential
details to make the collaboration work. In the recovery of Hastings
Street, our partners found a vehicle for achieving other, more immediate
aims having to do with community building and intergenerational
communication. The real imperatives of our joint project only became
apparent in the doing of the work. Together, we discovered common
ground in the history we were making. The past became a terrain
of exchanges across racial, class, and generational lines.
Actors impersonate the white mobs during the 1943 Detroit
race riot. At the end of the scene, they all took off their
masks and moved them, wavelike, as the young woman in the
front told how a white mob swept down the street in a wave
that nobody stopped. Photograph by david smith Photography.
Courtesy Mosaic Theater.
When Mosaic premiered the play 2001 Hastings Street to sell-out
crowds at Detroit's Music Hall in May 2001, it was more than a good
evening's entertainment. The audience "talked back" all
through the performance--murmuring assent, remembering and reliving
long-forgotten moments across the aisles and in the lobby, and in
their applause affirming these young actors as the carriers of their
memories and the heirs of their experience. For performers and audience
alike, this history, enacted and public, helped to validate the
present and to evoke a future. It served a public good. No classroom
performance, however eloquent or compelling, could have taught undergraduate
students of history so well this deeper lesson about why we study
and teach history.6
Charles Bright is a professor of history, teaching
in the University of Michigan's Residential College where he also
serves, this year, as its director.
1 See, for example, Ze'ev Chafets, Devil's Night
and Other True Tales of Detroit (New York, 1990); and Jerry
Herron, AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History
2 The best is Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the
Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton,
3 Nancy Cantor, "Reinvention: Why Now? Why Us?,"
paper delivered at the symposium on the Boyer Commission Report,
State University of New York, Stony Brook, April 2000, quoted in
the "Report of the President's Commission on the Undergraduate
Experience," University of Michigan, October, 2001 (in the
possession of Charles Bright).
4 See Richard W. Thomas, Life for Us Is What We Make
It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945 (Bloomington,
5 See June Manning Thomas, Redevelopment and Race:
Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Baltimore, 1997).
6 The interview tapes are now in the possession of the
Arts of Citizenship Program, University of Michigan (and will eventually
make their way to the Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Library,
University of Michigan). I have a copy of the script in my possession.
Every time it is performed, there are changes, updates, and alterations
of one kind or another; it is a work in continual process.