“I said a small town … He must know what a small town is … Well, he's no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town…” — Jay Gatsby
Detroit has long been recognized as an unparalleled incubator for some of our nation’s most beloved artists. All too often, their talent takes them away from their hometown, especially to the creative capitals like Los Angeles and Broadway where it can cost $10 million to $15 million to launch a musical.
This week is a homecoming for some of Detroit’s most accomplished theatrical celebrities. Among those honored Sunday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of American History by Mayor Mike Duggan and the city’s Director of Arts and Culture Rochelle Riley were Tony winners Michael R. Jackson (A Strange Loop), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lackawanna Blues), along with playwright Dominique Morriseau (Skeleton Crew), Director/Producer Woodie King Jr. (Checkmates) and Cass Tech alum Chanté Adams (Roxanne, Roxanne).
The ceremony, part of the Black Theater Network conference here, attracted some of America’s most distinguished actors, directors, producers and educators.
The conference highlight was the world premiere of Hastings Street, a hopeful musical about one of the darker chapters in Detroit history. Produced by Plowshares Theatre Company, the all-Detroit creative team illuminates the story of a family’s attempt to survive the impending demolition of Black Bottom, the vibrant business and creative heart of Detroit’s African American community. Among the musicians who headlined popular clubs here like The Flame was Maurice King, who led America’s first integrated female national touring jazz band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
“Mayor Alfred Cobo had a master plan,” says the show’s producer/director Gary Anderson. “His goal was to reduce the city’s black population and in the process build what became the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway — I-375.”
Replaced in the early 1960s by a new Lafayette Park housing complex mostly occupied by white residents, the final days of Black Bottom were a frightening time for local business owners.
“My wife Addell, her sisters Yvette and Colette were daughters of a Black Bottom boarding house owner,” says Anderson who is also Plowshares’ producing artistic director.
“The economic devastation caused by the loss of that business has had an impact on our family to this day,” says Anderson who received Kresge Foundation support to mount the production playing at Detroit’s Music Hall through Sunday.
Delayed due to Covid, the show had a warm reception at the conference that showcased the city’s deep theatrical bench. With a book and score by John Sloan III and Kris Johnson, this ambitious musical is a prequel to the 1950s heyday of federally funded urban renewal — a euphemism for the process that displaced thousands of African Americans living in segregated Black Bottom.
Set in the summer of 1949, the Carsons, a family in transition, realize they and their neighbors operating small businesses are the target of urban planners eager to lure white residents downtown. After inheriting the family grocery from their father, Renita (Lulu Fall) and her brother Robert (Taurean Hogan), a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen, struggle to survive in the face of an uncertain future.
Produced for a small fraction of what the show would cost to put up on Broadway, Hastings Street is blessed by a passionate acting team including two performers — Augustus Williamson (Robert Sr.) and jazz and blues notable Miche Bradon (Mama B.) — who were born in Black Bottom.
Although some of the stars like Bradon are Detroit expats, many of the standouts such as Fall, who has performed on Broadway, and Hogan are local.
For Anderson, who has absolutely no plans to bring this impressive show to Broadway — “The price tag is out of range” — Hastings Street is all about celebrating the city’s resilience. A musical showcase, the play profiles how one determined family adjusts to one of our city’s great ironies.
Specifically, how after decades of being frozen out of the city’s larger housing market due to restrictive covenants and other legal chicanery (see Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle on the famous Ossian Sweet case) the city’s legendary neighborhood is torn down. In the process families are forced to confront their next move in a hostile real estate market. Some never returned to Detroit.
Determined to change the world one musical and play at a time, Anderson and his Plowshares team offer a history lesson gift wrapped in memorable music. For anyone interested in seeing the very best Detroit has to offer this weekend, Hastings Street, which closes on Sunday, is a must. Hopefully it will return to the stage here in the near future.
Hastings Street is at Detroit’s Music Hall with evening shows this Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well as a Saturday matinee. For more information and to order tickets call 313-887-8500 or go online to musichall.org/buy
To learn more about the history of Black Bottom please visit:
A demolition plan for I-375 is in the works. Click here for details about the project and opportunities to participate.
Roger Rapoport (rogerrapoport.com) is the producer and screenwriter of Coming Up For Air which screens on September 30 as part of the Cinetopia Festival showcase at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater.