PERFORMANCE PROJECT ABOUT SOUTHWEST DETROIT (2000-02)
Partners: Matrix Theatre Company, University of Michigan Residential College
Course: Community Projects In the Arts and Humanities (syllabi, 2000, 2001)
My work with the UM Arts of Citizenship Program always involved boundary-crossing, not only between the academy and the larger community, but also across different disciplines and cultural forms. The Homelands project, a partnership with the UM Residential College (RC) and Detroit's Matrix Theatre Company, melded historical research, community story-telling, place-making, and performance.
Homelands grew out of another interdisciplinary project with a different Detroit-area troupe (Mosaic Youth Theatre), in which I had teamed with RC faculty Charlie Bright and Kate Mendeloff to help create a historical play about coming of age in Detroit ("2001 Hastings Street," described here). Charlie and Kate also had a close relationship with Matrix Theatre Company, a troupe in Southwest Detroit with a passionate commitment to community-based, socially-engaged theater. They wanted to continue the mix of historical research, dramaturgy, and community-based teaching they had evolved in the Hastings Street project. They were also fascinated with Southwest Detroit, among the city's most diverse, with a multi-ethnic mix of Latinos, Arab-Americans, blacks, whites, and others. The neighborhood is also the site of one of Detroit's most monumental and compelling 'ruins,' the Michigan Central rail terminal, once the 'Ellis Island' through which many of the city's migrants first arrived. Charlie and Kate reached out to the founders of Matrix, Shaun and Wes Nethercott, as well as me, to create a play about the history of Southwest Detroit. Shaun, a director, was intrigued to partner with the university; Wes, a playwright, suggested focusing the project on the Michigan Central terminal.
For two semesters in 2000-01, students in my course, Community Projects in the Arts and Humanities, researched the story. Working with Charlie, Kate, UM visiting scholar Robert Self, and project coordinator Craig Regester, they assembled a report on the social and demographic history of the neighborhood, interviewed residents and activists, and did architectural and visual research on the railroad station itself. Wes Nethercott transformed the material into "Homelands: Michigan Central," a piece set in the hulk of the contemporary terminal. A young grafitti artist named Antonio has broken in with his girlfriend Munce, aiming to spray-paint his commentary on the walls. There they encounter George, an old conductor (perhaps himself a ghost), who offers them a fantastical narrative of the histories the terminal has witnessed, histories of which they are largely ignorant. We see scenes of Pullman porter strikes, the coming of Mexican farmworkers, the rise of the auto industry, the 1967 riots, the station's closure in 1988. Perhaps the heart of the play is Diego Rivera's arrival in 1932 to paint his celebrated murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts. (My students had interviewed one of Rivera's now-elderly assistants.) For of course Antonio's ambition is--like Rivera--to capture the life of his city on the walls of his city.
Wes Nethercott completed the script in early 2002. That same spring, another team of UM students created a lobby exhibition of historical photographs that illustrated the scenes and themes of the play. "Homelands: Michigan Central" opened in Matrix Theatre Company's neighborhood performance space in May, 2002, with a mixed cast of professional and community actors. In 2004, the State of Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries awarded its annual "Imagining Michigan" Award to Matrix and Arts of Citizenship in recognition of our partnership.
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