To a certain extent, you can thank Salt-N-Pepa for Shakespeare in Detroit. Founding executive and artistic director Sam White was first introduced to the Bard as punishment, after her mother caught her listening to “Push It” in her room. “My mother thought it was the most obscene song ever...so she knocked on my door and gave me this big book that smelled like attic, and it was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” White says. “So, by punishment is how I fell in love with Shakespeare.” Years later, that love inspired her to start Shakespeare in Detroit, a theatre company that presents site-specific productions around the city, giving audiences of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds the chance to experience classical theatre.
The project is about more than just art, it’s a shared space for the community to come together and celebrate their history and their future as Detroit continues to rebuild and flourish. “Our very first show was in 2013, four weeks after the city filed for bankruptcy. I didn’t know if anybody would come because people weren’t eating, people were losing their homes,” White explains. “500 people showed up for our first show, Othello. That proved to me that it is important. When things hit the fan, all we have is who we are, and the arts remind us of that.” Up next for the company is Hamlet in New Center Park July 14–16.
For tickets and information to Shakespeare in Detroit, click here.
White herself is a lifelong Detroiter from 7 Mile, and her pride in her city is a huge part of her inspiration. “The people are the soul of our city, and that’s the catalyst for everything we do.” Much as been made of the “renaissance” of art in Detroit, but White is quick to point out that the city’s vibrant cultural and artistic scene isn’t new. “Detroit has always had a foundation of creativity, look at the legacy of Motown. Art has always been here, it’s just becoming more visible now.”
The company strives to engage with the city and incorporate its character into every aspect of their work, including the locations where they perform. One of White’s favorite pieces was a production of Antony and Cleopatra at a recycling center called Recycle Here, which was the original home of the Lincoln Motor Company. All of the costumes for the show were made with recycled and repurposed materials. “It’s cool to be able to fuse the history of Detroit with Shakespeare,” she says. “We have so much history in this city and so many historical sites that we can reinvigorate with this work.” She has also seen how the arts, and specifically Shakespeare, have stimulated the economy in other cities. She cites Stratford, Ontario as an example. “That city is pretty much built around the Stratford Festival. It’s been done before, these same benefits that other cities receive with theatre. Detroit can have that too.”
In a city that can often seem divided and that continues to reshape itself after a series of economic hardships, White believes Shakespeare in Detroit will impact the community through the reflective nature of theatre. “It all goes back to windows and mirrors,” she says. “You can see yourself, and you can see someone unlike you. You might pass the people sitting next to you on the street, but here, you sit with these people and you have a beautiful experience together.”