BWW Previews: DETROIT '67 at Tempe Center for the Arts. A conversation with the people bringing this show to life in Phoenix
I had the opportunity to speak with Ralph Remington, the director of Detroit '67 and the Producing Artistic Director of Tempe Center for the Arts, and David Hemphill, the executive director of Black Theatre Troupe. We talked about the play written by Dominique Morisseau, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" recipient, and two-time NAACP Image Award winner. As well, we touched on the Black theatre community in the valley of the sun, and the impact shows like Detroit '67 have on the community in this current climate of social injustice.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
David: My name is David Hemphill and I'm the Executive Director of Black Theatre Troupe and I've been with the company for 15 years. This is the company's 48th anniversary season as one of the oldest continuously operating African-American theatre companies or arts organization in the country.
Ralph: I'm the deputy director for Arts & Culture for the city of Tempe and the former Director of Theatre and Musical Theatre for The National Endowment for the Arts, and I'm a founding Artistic Director at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. I'm also the Producing Artistic Director at Tempe Center for the Arts.
As the new producing artistic director of Tempe Center for the Arts, what new perspective and vision do you have for them?
Ralph: Basically, what I was brought here to do, I was brought here in 2016 after 900 stakeholders came together in the city of Tempe and they put together an Arts and Culture Plan and they wanted to get professional leadership around their arts programming in Tempe. So, they went out to find their person and they brought me onboard we set out to create a mission, making art for all voices and all people and all perspectives so that all voices can be heard. So we're looking at how do we provide a place for people from the city of Tempe and the Region, and of the State of Arizona to come and see different genres, disciplines from different perspectives, cultural and racial perspectives.
What drew you to Detroit '67?
Ralph: I've known the playwright, Dominique Morisseau, for some years, probably about 8 years now and I met her while I was at the National Endowment for the Arts and consequently, she has become a well-known Playwright. She's an African-American writer and she is a MacArthur Fellow. She also currently has a musical on Broadway "Ain't Too Proud" about The Temptations. What really drew me too it in particular was that it's a powerful [piece] on the relationship between African-Americans and the police and obviously that resonates with situations today when we look at Philando Castillo and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Eric Garner, all the names that we now know because of their contact with police forces that ultimately ended in their death. I think this play, even though it takes place around 1967 during the Civil Rights Movement and right at the start of the Black Power Movement where Blacks folks really decided that they would take control of things themselves and try to own a piece of this world and try to express themselves and be themselves without having to ask permission. They gave themselves permission to be unapologetically black.
What is your directing style and vision for Detroit '67?
Ralph: Well, the show its written very naturally and realistically. That's the style that I love that I feel very comfortable in. Especially with work like this it's edgy, it's raw, it's in your face, it's very visual and it hits on all your emotions. You find yourself laughing one minute and crying the next. You find yourself mad as hell one moment and then confused and perplexed the next. One moment you think you know what the character should do as the audience member and the next moment you're not quite sure. It's a play that I think will tug on a lot of different emotions and that's definitely an interesting inspiration.
What role do you have in casting the show?
David: Ralph Remington is the lead person in terms of the casting. Black Theatre troupe is doing a partnership with the Tempe Center for the Arts. So as with most co-productions and partnerships as such the person that takes the lead in terms of casting is the person that Is going to direct the production because they know who they like and who they don't like. So that was really the extent of my role which was sitting in on the casting and giving my opinion on the actors who were being cast.
It is a known fact that it can difficult to cast people of color in shows in the valley, did you run into those difficulties choosing actors or did they show up and fit exactly what you envisioned for the show?
David: No. It took a couple of passes. It took a few auditions. Not seeing what we wanted the first call, then putting out another call for actors and etc. For the most part, we had a good selection of actors. That will be a good question for you to ask Ralph for his opinion on that, but my opinion was that we did have a good selection of actors to choose from.
Ralph: Well you know, I had anticipated having a more difficult time casting than I did. My partner David Hemphill from Black Theatre Troupe, who is co-producing the show knows all the Black Actors everywhere that he found in the area. And because they knew it was a co-production and they knew I was African-American as well I think that made people want to come out and show up and audition. We had a great audition pool.
How does a play like Detroit '67 translate to the current climate of social injustices we see today?
David: I think it is very important, particularly for the younger audience members that didn't experience the troubles of civil rights. It is quite amazing for them to see the process that people had to go through to assure their civil rights. You know it touches on the riots and etc. in the play and the social unrest. So, I think that in terms of a parallel to today, I think it is a very strong parallel with marches and Black Lives Matter and all of those moments sort of underline the same problems that we had through the ages. Being a minority population, there's always been problems through the ages and what we have done with some of the protests and some of our striving for rights and etc. what we've done is we've been able to bridge that gap just a bit; at least build a bridge between the injustices and the reality of people of color. So, I think that is the most important thing that is going to come from this play is the younger audience members or uninformed audience members are going to say, "I can't believe that people had to go through that just to have rights." It's hard to believe that the Voting Rights Act was 65 [years ago] it's hard to believe those things for some people. Plays like this kind of make it a reality for people.
Ralph: Well I think a lot of the injustices that we are experiencing today haven't really been addressed. I think America is really good at putting a band-aid on the problem of racism, civic oppressions especially racial oppression but they're not good at addressing the root causes of it and really everything that plagues Black America, you can trace the roots back to slavery and the fact that we really have never addressed the ramifications of the African slave trade in this country.
Me: I whole-heartedly agree with the comment about putting a band-aid on what really is wrong. We're not really fixing the problem we're just kind of shoving it to the side and hoping that it will air out and feel better later.
Ralph: Exactly, and you can see that playing out in our politics as well. Because we had the first African-American president and you saw how he was treated and then we saw the backlash to having an African-American president with the election of Donald Trump.
In Conjunction with that Question, what impact do shows like Detroit '67 have on the theatre community?
David: Well with the theatre community, most directors and most producing artistic directors and theatre management people are very very artistically aware and they know that in the world of theatre there are many different types of plays. So, I think the impact that we have as an organization and that this particular play has is it gives [theatre professionals] the opportunity to relax. It gives them an opportunity to see productions that they wouldn't ordinarily see in Phoenix. We have the distinct opportunity to do the plays from the African-American lexicon. So, I think it would help theatre professionals remember and help revitalize their artistic goals and it may even help some of them say well I think that our organization could do a production that has people of color at the center of the story. It may help in that aspect.
Ralph: Well I think by introducing a new writer into the ecosystem it allows people here to kind of familiarize themselves with another writer. I think that a lot of Black playwrights are not really known here outside of August Wilson and maybe a couple others that people may know but Dominque Morisseau is certainly a writer that people should know. They should know Katori Hall. They should know Lydia Diamond, Marcus Gardley. These writers that are out there that are really throwing down. So I'm hoping to definitely introduce Black writers to the ecosystem but also new writers of every hue. Because of my time with the National Endowment of the Arts, I've been able to get to know a lot of the new writers on the scene today who are writing all over the country and there are some really exciting voices that are out there. We just premiered Lauren Gunderson's play The Revolutionist. That was a co-production with the Bridge Initiative, the only women theatre in Arizona and she is also one of the new, current writers out there who are not black and who has a lot of adventurous interesting exciting ideas.
What would you like audiences to take away from this show?
Ralph: Audiences bring to the show their own experiences. For a lot of Black audiences, I'm sure that what they see will be familiar, but it will also allow them to see themselves and kind of know that they're not crazy when they experience the things that they experience. I think for a lot of white audiences it will allow them to step inside of the heads of Black America particularly in the late 1960s but also see the way that black folks feel that they're treated in society and perhaps find a better way to help mitigate the negative circumstances that we find ourselves in today.
What is Black Theatre Troupe's mission for the theatre community and how does Detroit '67 reflect that?
David: Our mission has always been to illuminate the African American Experience and then share those illuminations with a broader community. A production like Detroit '67 fits perfectly into our mission because it does outline the very important aspect and a very important time in the lives of African Americans in this country. And that's the responsibility of the Black Theatre Troupe, is to do those plays that resonate with the African-American community and resonate with the community at large because of their content. And then of course on the other side, it's very important to have a place where African American artists of color who are underserved already and underrepresented in Phoenix. It's very important for them to have a platform to grow and to use their talents and that's the other most important aspect of our existence.
Was Detroit '67 picked to fit an overall theme that you have for this season?
David: No, it wasn't picked to fit in any overall theme. It was actually a suggestion and brought to our attention by Ralph. It doesn't fit any particular theme, but it was selected for its resonance within the community. Now one of the things that also makes it pretty important that we're doing it is the playwright just received the McCarthur Genius Award. Detroit '67 is part of a trilogy called The Detroit Project because she's from Detroit, and the third one in the trilogy "Pipeline" was just on PBS Friday & Sunday. SO, it is very timely that the Black Theatre Troupe is one of the first companies in the country to do one of her plays after she was recognized as a McCarthur Genius and after the exposure, she's getting. We were very lucky to be able to get the license to do the play.
Ralph: Well it is premiering in Black History Month so there's that. Black Theatre Troupe explores Black History and Black Theatre in general and Black themes about of Black Life in America. What we're doing and what I'm doing at Tempe Center for the Arts is showing all types of marginalized and disenfranchised people and it certainly fits a lot of issues of marginalization and disenfranchisement. We look at peoples voices who are oppressed or silenced in some kind of way and what arts can do is to bring those voices to the forefront and allow people to hear them in an unmitigated way. In a way that's centered so that they can perhaps reflect on it and then recognize how we can correct some of these problems so that we make this society better for all.
If you had to trade places with any other roles on or backstage what role would you take?
David: I think I would like to be a scenic designer. I would like to create the environment that plays are produced in. The settings, the scenery, and the furniture and all that stuff. That's what I would do if I could snap my fingers and be in another, or if someone told me you can only be in one other aspect of theatre but you can't be in the current aspect that you're doing now, what would you do to remain in theatre and I would say scenery design.
Ralph: You know I think I'm right where I want to be. You know I've been an actor, I started out as an actor, I'm a writer as well, I direct obviously, and I produce. So, at this point in my life, producing and directing and writing are where I want to be and it's the thing that pleases me the most.
These two men on their respective platforms are strengthening Black Theatre while also promoting thespians seeking theatrical asylum, in the hopes of being recognized just as actors rather than Black actors or actors of color. Pushing our individuality over skin hue. I was humbled and inspired by my conversation with Ralph and David, and look forward to seeing this amazing show. Detroit '67 opens at Tempe Center for the Arts on February 22nd and runs until March 17th. Make sure you do not miss this powerful work of art.
Photo Credit: Laura Durant