Shakespeare in Detroit returns with new home at Marygrove Conservancy

After a four-year hiatus, the Bard is back — but if people think SiD’s performances are just about ‘the dead dude who wrote them,’ they’re missing the point, says director Sam White

click to enlarge Sam White and the Shakespeare in Detroit troupe. - Dawn Hamilton
Dawn Hamilton
Sam White and the Shakespeare in Detroit troupe.

A Shakespeare performance is coming to Detroit, but this time it’s not all about the Bard — it’s about the audience.

“Shakespeare in Detroit is about breaking down barriers that exist for people in our beloved Detroit,” says Sam White, the founding artistic and executive director of the nonprofit theater organization.

White says she started Shakespeare in Detroit (SiD) because she wanted to produce inclusive, equitable productions that reflected the diversity of Detroit. Her goal was to bring the Shakespeare experience to parks throughout the city.

“I have loved Shakespeare most of my life because of my Black mother,” she says. “I never really thought about the dead dude who wrote them. These stories have touched me deeply and in a real, personal way, and, in many ways, have expanded my imagination and outlook. I felt like other people deserved that same exposure and experience.”

Currently, SiD is the only professional theater in Detroit that is founded and led by a Black woman.

In 2012, the company launched as a grassroots effort called Shakespeare Against Cancer. A group of actors from the local theater company would perform private performances at different hospitals for children receiving chemotherapy. By 2013, Shakespeare Against Cancer transitioned into Shakespeare in Detroit. The actors would perform their shows at various parks across Detroit, just four weeks after the city filed for bankruptcy.

“We understood the assignment,” White says. “We knew that there was a need for the community to sit together, under the stars, embraced by the architecture of downtown Detroit, to remember challenges like that in Othello, where the decisions that one person or a small group makes impacts so many others.”

White says it’s important to have the community support the arts, especially when it comes to the SiD performances.

“Businesses will bring people here, but the arts will make them stay,” she says of Detroit. “We need food, water, and shelter to stay alive, but the arts make it possible to live. The arts support our quality of life. People can choose to live in any city in the world. But if we want them to stay in Detroit, the arts [must] thrive.”

She adds, “Nobody is going to New York because Wall Street is cool. They go for the arts. We must take heed.”

White’s hope it that her audience is open-minded when watching SiD’s performances. She believes that if people think that Shakespeare in Detroit is about Shakespeare, they are missing the point.

“We do his plays, but it’s about the humanity, the real-life situations, in the stories,” she explains. “When I was in isolation taking care of my father who suffered from Parkinson’s in the throes of the pandemic, I thought of King Lear’s daughters who watched and dealt with their father with dementia. It is a difficult thing to watch a parent actively dying.”

During the pandemic, White says she would connect herself to characters from the Shakespeare plays as they both battled with the idea of legacy, family, and moral obligations while trying to sustain their own well-being.

“I could see myself in them – some days I was Regan, other days I was Goneril, most days I was Cordelia,” White sats. “Shakespeare writes about real-life, and we all live in the real world, no matter what costume we have on.”

click to enlarge A performance of Hamlet by Shakespeare in Detroit. - Chuk Nowak
Chuk Nowak
A performance of Hamlet by Shakespeare in Detroit.

The Shakespeare in Detroit performances are geared toward all ages, White says.

SiD’s last time onstage with professional actors was in 2018. The performers were on a break from professional programming to focus on their educational work, by way of the Shakespeare STEAM program, where they provided artistic and vocational training in schools.

Then came the pandemic, which put everything on pause. The COVID-19 shutdown had major effects on the Shakespeare performances.

“COVID extended that hiatus,” White says. “It was quite traumatic for us because we had planned to come back with a bang in 2020. So as of this year, we have been on break from our professional work for four years, which means we have lost touch with some of our audiences. And on top of that, we were supposed to move into a lovely new theater in 2020 on Detroit’s Riverfront, and that fell through as well due to COVID. But we’re still here and The Complete Works is a wonderful toe dip back into the work.”

SiD has moved their performances into the former Marygrove College, now known as the Marygrove Conservancy. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare {abridged} [revised], a co-production with the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco and directed by Reed Martin, will be the first performance taking place at SiD’s new home. The new site will serve as SiD’s offices as well as storage for the costumes and props used in the performances.

“We hope to return to outdoor performances next year, but this is where this month’s show will take place, and where people can come to see a lot of our work,” White says. “Having a home where we can truly strategize for the future, build our team, host our youth theater conservatory each summer, and construct our costumes is important to our stability.”

“Businesses will bring people here, but the arts will make them stay. ... People can choose to live in any city in the world. But if we want them to stay in Detroit, the arts [must] thrive.”

tweet this

The group has geared its focus on making the new venue a home and plans on hiring a team of professionals who not only believe in inclusivity and kindness, but also display it on an everyday basis.

“We are absolutely headed in the right direction with the right people since the pandemic,” White says. “Our new home and new team are going to be reflected from here on out from behind-the-scenes to what people see with our educational work to our professional shows and our special events.”

Last fall, White reached out to L. Peter Callendar, an artistic director at the African-American Shakespeare Company, about the idea of working with SiD to revamp the show that played last summer on the West Coast.

“It feels like the world could use some joy right now,” Martin says. “This show delighted audiences when the African-American Shakespeare Company produced it in the [San Francisco Bay Area] last fall. We are delighted to bring it to Shakespeare in Detroit.”

Hilary Johnson, 32, of Taylor, says she’s looking forward to seeing the new performances.

“I’m excited that SiD is back,” Johnson says with a laugh. “Now that we can get back outside, it’s going to be such a fun time to see the performances again. It seems like it has been forever. I am really looking forward to going with my girlfriends. We are making a whole special day out of it.”

White wants her new audience to keep in mind that their Shakespeare performances are just for fun.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare {abridged}[revised] is a reminder that Shakespeare in Detroit is still here as we re-emerge from the pandemic with professional shows,” says White. “We also want the audience to laugh and have fun. It is a sprint where we take all the core bits from the narratives of all 37 plays and make them as funny as possible.”

She adds, “It is great for folks who love Shakespeare or those who hate him. It makes great fun of the plays, and whether you are 8 years old or 80, this is the show for you. It is especially great for any high school students who may be struggling with the plays, which are required reading throughout Michigan’s school districts. Come see this show because it really breaks down the stories and makes them more digestible for those new to Shakespeare.”

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged} [revised] opens on Wednesday, May 18 and closes Sunday, May 29. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays with two shows on Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and matinees at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 75-minute run-time and no intermission. Shakespeare in Detroit is located at Marygrove Conservancy, 8425 West McNichols Rd. (Madame Cadillac Building); 313-506-9721; Tickets are $45 for general admission and seating.

Stay connected with Detroit Metro Times. Subscribe to our newsletters, and follow us on Google News, Apple News, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or TikTok.

About The Author

Darlene A. White

If you see Darlene, she is usually on deadline while holding a cup of coffee in one hand and chasing her twin toddlers across metro Detroit. She is a Ferndale High School graduate, a Wayne State Warrior, and a proud member of the National Association of Black Journalists. Darlene’s first love is radio. One of...
Scroll to read more Arts articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.