Beneath the leaky roof of Detroit’s original Lincoln Motor Company factory, ice creeps along the cinder-block walls and trash spills across the cracked concrete floor. Once abandoned like much of this embattled city, the warehouse is now home to the nonprofit Recycle Here. Compactors loom like corpulent insects waiting to be fed soymilk cartons, phone books, and tin cans. ¶ Huddled on uprooted bus benches and swaddled in blankets and wool caps, hundreds of spectators
crowd around a splintered stage built from shipping pallets. Their collective breath fogs the air. Onstage, bathed in the light of two blazing torches, Marc Antony chooses the intoxicating beauty of the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra over the fate of his own Roman empire.
The setting for this performance of the Shakespearean tragedy Antony and Cleopatra is an apt symbol for a city that was itself, once upon a time, a dominant empire. The play was chosen to reflect the tension inherent in Detroit’s newfound resurgence, between those who are bound to the city’s past, as in Antony’s Rome, and those who are driving its innovative future, à la Cleopatra’s Egypt.
Antony sports a disheveled leather jacket; the word “fear” adorns a patch on his shredded jeans. Cleopatra wears a headdress carved from an old soccer ball and carries an asp cut from a bicycle tire. The peculiar costumes are upcycled trash foraged from the factory.
During the performance a woman wearing a kaleidoscopic dress and crimson lipstick stalks the edge of the crowd, pacing incessantly in her high heels. After the finale she takes the stage to thank the audience, composing herself to mask the panic that still seizes her any time she addresses a crowd. She introduces herself as Sam White, founder and executive director of Shakespeare in Detroit.
In addition to her stage fright, there are other things she’s hiding from the assembly before her. Exhaustion, for one. The number of jobs she holds often exceeds the number of hours she sleeps at night. And after leaving a well-paying post at Ford to pursue this unlikely dream, she rests her head on a rotating cast of beds and couches offered by friends and family because the 33-year-old can no longer afford her own place.
There’s the looming possibility of failure, for another. This ambitious project may yet collapse in spite of her ceaseless work and sacrifice. Starting a business is always a risky affair, but launching a Shakespeare company in a city with a crippled economy seems almost foolhardy. Revenues have been lower than expected. Two crowdfunding campaigns have failed. She’s done bake sales and sold off personal items that were hard to let go, which provided only temporary relief. If she can’t raise sufficient funds from private investors, the whole thing could collapse.
Yet Sam is motivated by factors that make failure unfeasible. She grew up in a hardscrabble Detroit neighborhood, and the Bard changed her life against all odds. She’s determined he can do the same for others, and she’s already making a name for herself. Last year she was heralded one of Crain’s Detroit Business 40 Under 40. She’s also drained her personal savings account, so there’s no room for error. She slows her breathing and tells the crowd a version of a mantra she repeats often: “You have to have a healthy, thriving creative community to have a successful city. As artists, we have the responsibility to bring people together.”
But why bring them together amid piles of trash?
Sam was 8 years old when Shakespeare came knocking. In her bedroom with the door closed, she pressed her ear against her portable, gray boom box while the hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa played low so her mother wouldn’t hear. Her mom caught the hushed beats warbling from Sam’s room anyway and climbed into the attic to unearth a dusty, oversize book. She tapped on Sam’s door and plopped The Complete Works of William Shakespeare into her arms. “If you like lyrics so much, read this,” she said.
Sam despised it at first and considered slogging through the archaic language an unusual form of punishment. A little each day she was forced to grapple with material that vexes many high school students. Eventually, as a teenager, she began grasping the stories and even found some refuge during those angst-ridden years, particularly when she discovered Othello. “When I found out there was a lead character that had brown skin like me, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “There was somebody I felt like I could relate to.”
At the local public schools, including Mumford High, where two students were shot on the first day in 2010, she was given little exposure to the arts. Shakespeare wasn’t even part of the curriculum. But at home she immersed herself and filled dozens of journals with reflections and poetry.
During family gatherings she staged plays with her cousins—always the director, always an entertainer. Years later, as she was planning her first show for Shakespeare in Detroit, she came to recognize in his work a reflection of her hometown. “If there’s any city in the world that can relate to Shakespeare, it’s Detroit,” she says, “because of what we’ve been through and what we’re going through. There’s comedy, tragedy, and pain.”
While she was growing up, Sam’s father worked for General Motors and her mom stayed at home, both native Detroiters who saw The Motor City at its bustling height. (Detroit still boasts the country’s largest theater district outside of New York’s Broadway, a holdover from the golden automobile age and the postwar economic boom.) Sam was born in 1981, as manufacturers were fleeing and the city’s population was in freefall.
Other Rust Belt cities have endured similar devastation while attempting to transform their economies in the wake of collapse, but no other metropolis has been on stage for all to see quite like Detroit. From a peak population of 1.8 million in 1950, the city is currently home to less than 700,000. In July 2013 Detroit became the largest municipality in history to file for bankruptcy. While the city has formally emerged from insolvency and its downtown is turning into one of the country’s hippest destinations, daunting obstacles remain to sustain this momentum over the long haul.
After graduating from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Sam fled to Las Vegas in hopes of making it as a comedian. She slept in a hotel and tried to beg her way on stage, with little luck. After a year she was disillusioned and homesick, and when a friend invited her to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, she leapt at the chance. As her bus charted a course through the red-orange desert, she reconsidered the direction of her own life. She felt pulled back home, but what was there for her?
Two days of performances inspired an unusual idea: If they can have a festival in the middle of the desert, we can have Shakespeare in Detroit.
She returned home in 2008 but was too crippled by doubt to start her own company. Instead, she picked up odd jobs and eventually landed a position with Ford. But for four years she remained restless and unhappy.
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘It was written in the stars’?” she asked the audience at TEDx Detroit in September. “Instead of taking responsibility for our own futures, or our own behavior, and realizing just how powerful we all are, we often forfeit all of that power to some sort of predestined circumstance—or a star.”
She told herself she wasn’t smart enough, didn’t have enough money, and wasn’t connected to the right people. “I’m from the west side of 7 Mile in Detroit—I can’t start a Shakespeare company!” she said. “And that’s just the way it is. I am who I am.”
Shakespeare’s King Lear, the monarch who went mad, compelled her to contemplate what sanity really means. “Perhaps a little bit of insanity is needed to go after your dreams, because there is nothing simple and comfortable about it.”
In 2012 she enrolled in The First Step, a course for aspiring entrepreneurs offered by the Detroit startup incubator TechTown. Of the 50 students who attended
the class, only 10 graduated, one of them with an improbable business plan in a city ravaged by The Great Recession: Shakespeare in Detroit.
Who is it!” comes a coarse, threatening voice from inside the house.
Sam, wearing jeans and a Ferrari hoodie, steels herself on the front porch and launches into her pitch: “Hello! My name is Sam White. I’m a Mumford graduate—Go Mustangs!—and I’m the founder of Shakespeare in Detroit. I just wanted to invite you and your family to a free performance of Romeo and Juliet at Mumford. Everyone is welcome, and we’re serving free dinner beforehand.”
Next to her stands Emilio Rodriguez, the Mumford drama teacher whom Sam has tapped to direct Romeo and Juliet. He holds an umbrella in one hand and a plastic shopping bag stuffed with flyers in the other. In this neighborhood on the near west side, a short walk from 7 Mile Road, Mumford High School rises in the distance. A few houses are deserted, but all the lawns are manicured, vacant yards likely tended by neighbors.
The man ambles to the door and eyes Sam through his steel-barred security door. “What do you want?”
“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” she reassures him. “I just wanted to invite you to our Shakespeare performance at the school.”
The school fits into Sam’s “site-specific” philosophy: They stage plays where people live, work, and play rather than in traditional theaters. For their inaugural performance in August 2013, 500 people turned out to see Othello in downtown’s Grand Circus Park. A Midsummer Night’s Dream played both at New Center Park and the historic Whitney restaurant. The Boll Family YMCA hosted The Tempest, and King Lear is set for this April at Marygrove College.
In this way Sam aims to lure diverse crowds to nooks of the city they might not visit otherwise, a formidable task considering that Detroit is the most segregated metro area in the country. At the same time, she aspires to take Shakespeare where he’s largely unknown.
In addition to being the founder and executive director, she’s also evangelist-in-chief. For each show, she spends countless hours campaigning to fill the seats by posting on social media, pleading for write-ups in the papers, pounding the pavement, and winning over one person at a time. Throughout this day, as Sam tramps across the neighborhood, she meets many Mumford alumni who, after some skepticism, warm to her crusade.
From the porch, she offers the man a save-the-date card, and he unlocks the security door to accept. She thanks him and strides off, triumphant. That’s one.
She’ll need a few more. Although more than 3,000 people attended Shakespeare in Detroit’s first full season, finances are a constant concern. Coming out of TechTown, Sam aspired to function like a tech startup. “In other words, not just creating art for art’s sake but creating something sustainable with a strategy and measurable data,” she says. But a for-profit Shakespeare company has proven untenable. She manages to pay the actors by way of ticket sales, and the other essentials of running a theater company are pieced together. For Antony and Cleopatra, the stage lighting, benches, and costumes were all donated, and Emilio’s drama students landed a grant to bring Romeo and Juliet to Mumford.
She even has to persuade her partners to stick around. Emilio has committed to two years at Mumford through Teach for America and is set on migrating to New York or Chicago soon thereafter. There was no drama program at the high school before him, and there will likely be none if he leaves.
After knocking on a few more doors, they venture out toward the nearby business district and duck into a religious bookstore, a gas station, a food pantry, and a barbershop, where they’re kicked out before having the chance to explain themselves. Still, they’re undaunted and march over to a Little League baseball game. They walk 6 miles in all, and Sam manages to create intimate connections even in awkward situations.
“I was born an artist, but along the way I became kind of an activist and an advocate,” she says. “In some ways I’m a voice for people who haven’t been given a chance to do Shakespeare.” The production of Romeo and Juliet is her most personal undertaking thus far: To bring Shakespeare to her alma mater is to affect the lives of students whose struggles she knows all too well.
For now, the Western world’s most fabled warring families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are at peace. Juliet, Lady Capulet, Mercutio, and Montague are playing an impromptu version of Hacky Sack in the Ponyride ballet studio, swatting a ball of tape in the air while waiting for rehearsals to begin. Someone mentions the word “royal,” and in unison they belt out the hit song “Royals,” by Grammy Award–winning artist Lorde.
Emilio pulls costumes and props from a black garbage bag and hands Romeo, played by the lanky, blonde Ryan Ernst, a low-cut, red shirt. “Would Romeo have chest hair?” Ryan asks, concluding before Emilio can answer: “He’d be a shaver.”
Amongst the tape-swatting clutch of actors, Alexis Mabry stands out in a knee-length, cherry-colored dress, her simple but striking costume as Juliet. She first met Sam when the sleep-deprived director stopped in at the coffeehouse where she worked, and Sam encouraged her to audition for Antony and Cleopatra. She’s been cast in every performance since, and Sam has become an important mentor. “She has so much drive and is so good at what she does,” Alexis says. “If I can be involved with anything she does, I’ll follow her to the end.”
Other young actors echo this sentiment. Phil Rice, who plays Tybalt, confesses he was planning to leave the state entirely after graduating from the University of Michigan, but Sam inspired him to reconsider. “She makes the text accessible to people who may not have seen it. The community can see themselves in the situations Shakespeare writes about, universal situations like love, poverty, jealousy.”
Emilio herds his actors into a circle for a warm-up exercise. “Make a knuckle sandwich, and put it below your chin,” he says, and the studio’s frenetic energy becomes focused and calm. “When you inhale, bring your arms up. When you exhale, put them down.”
Despite their intensive preparations, things don’t always go as planned. While the troupe performed in Grand Circus Park, Jimmy Buffet fans in Hawaiian shirts and leis stumbled through the audience as they arrived for a nearby concert. The stage’s underpowered sound system occasionally dissolved into static, and a few Buffet stragglers stopped to ring the giant stainless steel bell that serves as public art for the park. At one point, a familiar Sir Mix-A-Lot tune blared from an adjacent bar and muffled the vows of starstruck lovers.
Dominique Lowell is accustomed to the highs and lows. In Romeo and Juliet she plays the Nurse, the lovesick girl’s doting caretaker. In real life, like other seasoned Detroiters, she’s less inclined to gush when discussing the city’s current transformation. “You have to understand, I’m kinda old now, at least relative to most of the people doing theater and art in Detroit,” says the 53-year-old. “I’ve heard this ‘Detroit Renaissance’ stuff a number of times before—once or twice a decade, I’d say. The problem with Detroit has always been that there was no center to it. The sprawl and the abandonment left too many holes where the wind blows through.”
Dominique was 6 years old when the 1967 race riots plagued the city. She spent those five days worrying about her father, a reporter for The Detroit News who snuck into the demilitarized zone beneath the tarp of a National Guard jeep. She recalls a palpable change afterward, something the city is still recovering from. After college, she left for the East Coast before tacking westward and settling in San Francisco for a decade. Eventually, “like a salmon swimming upstream,” she returned home to raise her children.
Despite her reservations, even Dominique sees new reasons for hope. “The cultural activity going down now is unprecedented,” she says. “To have a fresh, inventive Shakespeare ensemble in the city speaks volumes about the work Sam is doing and the kinds of things that are transforming Detroit.”
Dozens of clucking high school students funnel through metal detectors and into the Mumford High School atrium long after most students have gone for the day. Their excitement ricochets off the 40-foot glass ceiling as they migrate to the cafeteria, where rows of fried chicken are laid out on lunch tables.
Among them is Symphony Shelton, a 15-year-old here with her mother, sisters, and a few friends. She writes poetry and aspires to be an actress—she confides that she often pretends to be on stage while in front of her mirror—but the closest thing she’s been afforded is a talent show. She’s just the kind of student Sam hopes to reach: It’s her first real theater experience. She’s unfamiliar with Romeo and Juliet, knowing only that it “involves love.”
Inside the auditorium, the lights dim, and the hive of students goes quiet. The place is quiet and beautiful, dark and fully modern. It was rebuilt along with the rest of the school in 2012. The audio booth and stage lighting are state-of-the-art, yet this is its very first production.
The actors circle together and beat their chests, chanting the play’s themes: hope, fate, blood, family, love. There is no scenery or props, but they keep the play visually interesting with body language. The raw acting cuts through the dense language, drawing the audience along on the journey. The fights play out like dances, and the famous balcony scene is accomplished with Juliet perched on the legs of two actors on bended knee.
Alexis portrays Juliet as a smarmy high school student, eminently relatable to the students, and Ryan’s confused and uncertain Romeo captures the turmoil of adolescence. After their first kiss, a few girls awwww while a group of boys pshhhht, feigning disinterest. During scene changes the audience dances to the hip-hop–inspired score. Through it all, Sam sits rapt in the front row.
At the play’s climax, as Juliet wakes up to find Romeo lifeless at her side, gasps can be heard across the room. When she raises the dagger and joins him in death, several are brought to tears. One of the world’s most famous stories has a surprise ending to much of the audience.
After the show, Symphony is ecstatic. “I liked the acting, especially the mom. She deserved the applause,” she says while relishing an ice cream sandwich. “And I want to get better at the language they speak.”
As the audience trickles out, Sam scours the cafeteria, stuffing wrappers into a trash bag. After an emotional performance, she’s already back to reality. Tonight, she’ll once again sleep on a friend’s couch and wake a few hours later to begin anew.
Yet there are markers of progress. The experience impacted Emilio so profoundly that he’s decided to remain in Detroit. And then there’s the audience’s response. Sam pauses to contemplate the gasps and tears and excited kids. “Now I feel like I’m doing something,” she says. “When the kids told me they enjoyed it…” She trails off, choking back tears, and then points at a group of students. “I was there, and they are me.”
Suddenly, across the cafeteria, one student scampers up to Phil, who played Tybalt, and sheepishly blurts out, “You were my favorite character!” before running away. Sam just smiles.
Originally published February 2015
Drew Philp is a theater critic for the Detroit Metro Times.
Photography by Chris Crisman