Watershed Moment as Theatre Presents 'Detroit ’67'
By Tim Meehan
As a director, Shaun Heard wants to challenge actors to dive into meaningful shows.
As an actor himself, Heard seeks to perform roles that push his boundaries of understanding the craft and the last impression his performance can have on a wide audience.
And as a lecturer at Cal State San Marcos, he knows that his job above all is simply to teach.
It was with this wide grasp coupled with a history of change-making moments in America's complex history with race that Heard channeled his passion to bring “Detroit ’67” to campus.
The play, written by Dominique Morisseau, opened Wednesday, Oct. 11 and will run through Oct. 14 in Arts 111. The curtain opens at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $7-10 and can be purchased here.
“One thing that I love about this job is the teachers and the directors, we get a lot of freedom,” Heard said. “When it comes to choosing our seasons every year, of course we have to bring our suggestions to the table. We have to get the entire faculty to agree. But ‘Detroit '67’ is an amazing play. I try to do plays that are diverse. I wanted to bring that heritage in, bring that story and bring that culture to this program. That was one of the main reasons why I chose it.”
The 1967 Detroit riot resulted in 43 deaths, nearly 1,200 injuries and 400 destroyed buildings. The confrontations between mostly Black residents and the Detroit police department amounted to the deadliest and most destructive insurgencies in this country since the Civil War (later surpassed by the Los Angeles riots of 1992).
With the riots and the incomparable soundtrack of Motown in the background, the fictional story follows Chelle and her brother Lank, who have turned their basement into an after-hours club. A mysterious woman arrives and shakes up the lives of the siblings, already stressed by the family business and the social unrest outside.
The subject matter, mixed with the dialogue and the rhythm of the language, struck a chord in Heard when he first opened the script.
“Dominique Morisseau is just an incredible writer,” said Heard, an alumnus of the CSUSM theatre program. “The play is a page turner. I remember the first time I read it, I finished it in about 20 minutes because it's nonstop from start to finish. It's a really good read. And it’s a very difficult play.”
The challenge for the 32-year-old Heard, a Black actor in Hollywood, in putting on a production with so many Black actors and crew was logistical. Simply put, he wasn’t sure he had the student population to do it.
Once the creative team decided to take on the show, there were other challenges. One, they had to make sure they had enough committed students to do it.
Then there was the matter of the language and rhythm of the play. The verbal landscape of Detroit in the 1960s is not one current college students are familiar with.
Student actors normally put in close to 20 hours a week in rehearsals, but this group stepped up to train for much longer than that.
“They’re struggling,” Heard said last month when discussing the progress of rehearsals. “It's been a test for them for sure. So one of the main reasons was to bring that heritage in, bring that story and bring that culture to this program. That was one of the main reasons why I chose it.”
The events portrayed in the play took place more than 50 years ago. But some of the same issues remain today.
How much race relations have improved is an ongoing debate. Law enforcement’s strained relationship with certain communities came to a crossroads – again – in 2020.
“I want the audience to not only feel inspired and educated, I want them to also grasp the emotions and the passion people felt,” said Kiani Broom, who plays Chelle. “The play takes place in 1967, just a few years after segregation was banned. Black people were still trying to find their place in society. I want the audience to be able to feel as if they went back in time and experienced those times as if they were actually there. To be able to go home and think about the history of the world we once lived in and recognize the great lengths we have come to get to where we are now.”
While Broom plays the heavy-hearted Chelle, Jaysean Ofoedu plays Lank, who seems pulled in different directions by his heart and his voice. Dwann Hicks is Sly, Lank’s best friend and a man with a heart for hustling and finding a good time. Caroline, the life of the party, is played by Morgan Harris. Natalie Mansfield plays Bunny, the mystery woman who sparks a chemistry with Lank.
One of the roles of the arts is to bring to light what’s most affecting our communities. Art can be both a creative inspiration and a powerful spotlight shining on what most ills us.
Heard knows that producing historically significant art can have the power to shape the world.
“As an actor myself, I have to remind myself that this is education,” said Heard, who has an ongoing role on the ABC show “Station 19.” “So as much as I want them to be brilliant actors, and as much as I want them to leave this campus and go pursue acting careers, it is my job to teach them a well-rounded education in theater.
“So it's important for them to understand the American history, right? American history within theater and how it's all connected. Acting is about being truthfully, existing truthfully.”
Heard knew he wanted to give CSUSM students of color the education of American history mixed with professional theater training. And there were plenty of tears born of both frustration about interpreting a difficult text and sadness over a heartbreaking topic.
He has some comedies in his back pocket; his next show might have to be lighthearted. But for now, he's reveling in the challenge that the students met with eager anticipation.
“Even though it's not a true story, it is written in the backdrop of mortality and a lot of historical events,” Heard said. “It's a lot of heaviness, which I don't think my students are used to tapping into, which was another reason why this play is such a good play for them to train with. It's very heavy, very beautiful. Lots of beautiful music, lots of laughter. It's a very funny play. And that's another thing I appreciate about the play is how you can go from laughter to tears back to laughter in the drop of a second, so it's wonderful.”
Broom, a communication major, said it’s been difficult for the cast to deal with such intense themes. But she considers the opportunity to breathe life into a fictional story with the backdrop of historic events to be an honor.
It seems Heard’s goal of teaching more than just how to put on a performance has been accomplished.
“History is a big part of what makes people who they are,” Broom said. “We learn from it and incorporate it into our day-to-day lives. For me, it helps me to become more aware of where I come from and how far Black people have come. Roles like these don't come very often. The event of the Detroit riots alone isn't something that is taught in history books, and to be able to bring it to life and show the audience Dominique Morisseau’s vision is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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