by Lorie Lewis Ham
As theatre continues to be presented online, University Theatre at Fresno State will be presenting its latest show, Detroit ’67, streaming December 4-12. The cast includes Trey Jones, Alexis Myles, Madeline Nelson, Nwachukwu Oputa, and TJ Taylor. We chatted with the director of the show, Thomas-Whit Ellis, Professor of Theatre Arts, Department Chair, Africana Studies, to learn more.
KRL: What is Detroit ‘67 about?
Professor Ellis: This play is a drama that explores racial and social norms common to 1967 America. On one level, it deals with the struggles of an inner city family as they navigate their way through life just above the poverty line. One of lead characters has an opportunity to open a small business, which will help the family inch closer to the American dream.
On another level, this Black family is forced to take in and shelter a young, middle class white woman on the run from a corrupt police official who needs her gone because she’s seen too much.
All of which is set against the backdrop of the Detroit Race Riots of 1967.
KRL: Why was this particular show chosen?
Professor Ellis: It was chosen over a year ago, to more closely examine the nation’s Black/White discord, which has surged over recent years. The play becomes more topical due to the recent spate of police excessive force killings of unarmed Blacks currently facing the nation and reaching a media peak over the past summer. At present, it could be said that there are two essential sides to the issue of these killings of unarmed and innocent citizens in this nation. Because of race and class, these sides do not seem close to reaching any major policy or practical solutions on a national basis. Given these facts, it is interesting to see American life 53 years ago with nearly identical policies and political lack of will to develop critical solutions.
This story takes a meaningful look at the lives of real people as they cope with the struggle towards bridging the gap of racial misunderstanding and hostility.
KRL: Is it a musical or a straight play?
Professor Ellis: It’s a straight play with some hints of the Motown sound often referred to the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Another problem of the transition from live to online stream, is the limits we have in presenting a wider spread of music from the period. Copyright preclusions severely limit our incidental, scene change, pre and post show music, which would have featured a broader sense of Motown, but other R&B and pop music of the era.
KRL: Is it a show originally written to be performed virtually or did you have to adapt it for a virtual presentation?
Professor Ellis: By all means, it is intended to be presented live, in our smaller, theater with arena seating. This play was originally scheduled to run as a part of our regular University Theatre Season of ‘19/‘20. It was cancelled a day before its opening in March. The University later decided to allow it to perform, virtually during the ‘20/‘21 virtual season.
KRL: How did you go about casting it?
Professor Ellis: The department used a process to allow actors to audition via video submission. Directors then invited actors back for a second set of auditions for specific shows of the fall semester.
KRL: Was the show filmed, or will it be streaming live?
Professor Ellis: The play had a set already in place from the previous production attempt in March. The shooting took place on that set, in the Woods Theater, originally slated for its production.
KRL: If filmed, what was the filming process like?
Professor Ellis: It was daunting, but handled very well under the circumstances. Our stage manager laid out a shooting schedule, which was dependent on our not being able to change costumes in between takes. This caused us to shoot out of sequence, which closely mirrored typical movie making processes, but inconsistent with the play rehearsal, linear process. Shooting out of sequence, was difficult for the actors, but handled with professionalism. The students received a good glimpse of professional filmmaking often absent from theatre training traditions. The process took a longer period to shoot because of these restrictions, but was finished on schedule. We were constantly applying state mandated COVID protocols, which were fairly easy to observe.
KRL: What sort of safety precautions did you have to take due to Covid for rehearsals and filming?
1. All blocking (preset movement of the actors on stage) had to be slightly modified to maintain the 6 foot or more, distance between actors while on stage. This was not a challenge in that normal stage direction requires that the stage space remain fully used to create aesthetically arranged or framed scenes.
There was one romantic scene which had to be cut and some other close interaction which had to be modified. This was naturally disappointing, but minor within the context of safety first.
2. All items and props within contact by actors were constantly wiped down. All actors brought their own drinking and eating items and were able to handle only the items that they, themselves had to handle. This required some fancy footwork during the filming process in replacing touched materials to look like they were being shared by actors.
3. Two types of masks were worn throughout the rehearsal process and everyone maintained a great distance when working onstage or waiting off stage.
The entire process was tremendously challenging, but all workable.
KRL: Did you work with other Fresno State departments to film this?
Professor Ellis: The production was picked up as a project by our University Brand Strategy and Marketing office. This was a miraculous save because our Media, Communications and Journalism production was tied up filming the two other fall productions. Without the generous participation by that office, we may not have been able to pull this off.
KRL: What special challenges have you faced in putting this show together?
Professor Ellis: The show was entirely recast from the previous attempt in March, hence we started from scratch. COVID protocols were restrictive in terms of access to the theater, PPE and other applications and so on. We weren’t allowed a crew to work the show so department staff worked hands on to ensure a smooth running of the show. Strict adherence to period costumes were prohibited since COVID mandates prevented the costume shop from direct participation. Production wise it was kind of a limited presentation, but was handled in stride. If given more lead time, these challenges would be much less severe. My sense in working with these protocols, was that they were pretty much in a state of flux due to government orders and institutional decisions made based on these fluid conditions. All of which seemed unavoidable in preventing campus related infections.
Performance details for Detroit ’67:
Dates: December 4 – 5 and December 8 – 12 performances stream at 7:30 p.m. PST and December 6 performance streams at 2:00 p.m. PST
General Admission streaming access is $15.
For more information, contact the box office at 559.278.7512 or universitytheatre@csufresno[dot]edu.
Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors–many of whom you will have seen on local stages. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play, and also on Podbean. A new episode goes up next week!
Check out more theatre articles & other local entertainment articles (including many more online/streaming shows) in our Arts & Entertainment section.