– Playwright Patrice Cassedy writing about her new play debuting at the 2014 DC Black Theatre Festival –
A few days after Trayvon Martin was killed, my husband and I ate out in Burbank, California, where I was working on a musical. Steve and I are white, the owner and wait-staff black. All of them wore custom T-shirts that said: “My son is black. Please don’t shoot him.” If I had lost steam revising and promoting my play about racial prejudice in twentieth century America (playwriting is a tough and sometimes thankless effort!), those eight words reenergized me.
Detroit Blues is set in July 1967, during the days leading up to the “race riot” or “urban rebellion” or “civil upheaval,” as it is variously called, depending on one’s perspective. At the end of five days of horrifying violence, looting and arson, 43 people (33 of them black) and one very fine city were dead. What had been the best possible place to grow up—a city of brick houses on tree-lined streets, of parks and river beaches, of world-class culture, of interracial parties where we danced to Motown music that we claimed as ours—was gone.
And so was my childhood belief that an integrated city with a white mayor, two black Congressmen and a solid mix of middle class and affluent whites and blacks, could teach America something about living and thriving together.
I chose to tell this story of overwhelming loss through the eyes of an African American girl named Claudia. I modeled her after my Detroit friends, white and black: Claudia has two fine parents, she is well educated, and she lives in a safe and integrated neighborhood. Above all, she believes that she can become whoever she wants to become. As playwrights do whenever they start a new story, I asked myself, What if?
What if Claudia wanted to write a play? What if she had: a blind friend who challenged Claudia’s complacency about race relations; a mother whose white friendships only went so far; a doctor father torn between protecting his family and caring for black victims of police violence; and a white friend whose poverty and near-orphan status reminded Claudia just how good Claudia had it. And, What if, everything changed for all of them, as it had for all of us, in the summer of 1967?
The answers came fast and furious, followed by years of writing and rewriting. Still, something was missing. Music, of course, I finally realized, because you can’t say “Detroit” without thinking “music.” I enlisted my son Mike Cassedy, a Brooklyn-based indie jazz composer and performer, to write a musical underscore. Mike and I also collaborated on a song about the burden on black mothers and daughters in a racially divided society that has a history of slavery. Last summer, Mike and I recorded all of the music. So when the DC Black Theatre Festival accepted Detroit Blues for its 2014 season, I was ready. All I needed was a director, a cast, costumes, a set, and props!
Fighting panic, I asked Mike’s wife, a theatre director, to tell her colleagues that I was looking for a DC-based director. Zoya Kachadurian immediately contacted me. Zoya had recently directed Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly. And although she is also white, she grew up in Newark (the Newark “riot” also figures in the play) and “got” the race dynamics of the play and of the era. I learned some good news about Zoya: she would be in DC soon. The bad news was that she lived in New York and was not connected to the DC theatre scene. I had no idea what to do next other than to show up. So I booked a flight from my home in San Diego to DC. The timing was perfect: I met Glenn Alan, festival director, Jennifer Petticolas, my festival ambassador, attended the festival’s open rehearsals, and met Zoya all in one weekend. Over the next little while, Zoya and I settled on what seemed to be the best plan: casting and rehearsing in New York, then bringing the show to DC.
June 20 – 29, 2014
Detroit Blues, A Play about Loss and Hope
Friday, June 27, 2014, 9pm
900 Massachusetts Ave NW
Tickets only $15
Fast forward to June 2, the first day of rehearsal. Zoya and I are sitting in a studio on W. 46th Street in NYC, listening to six incredibly talented, genuinely-moved actors breathe life into characters I’ve loved for years. After the first read-through, we listened to the actors’ responses to the play. Actors talk from the heart, and hearing them reaffirm the emotions and experiences of the characters touched my heart. Like playwrights, actors ask, What if. If I were Rose, who would my heroes be? If I were Claudia, would I have as much courage? Realizing the power that the director and actors were bringing to Detroit Blues, I silently formed my own What if:
What if our production expressed the true horror of those Burbank T-shirts with grace, humor and love?
And, What if people listened?
Detroit Blues is directed by Zoya Kachadurian, with music by Mike Cassedy. Featuring JaQwan Kelly, Christopher L. McAllister, Jevonnah Mayo, Christina Redd, Anna Robinson, and Jasmine Saunise.
Patrice Cassedy is a San Diego-based playwright and dramaturg. Patrice grew up in Detroit where she studied theatre at Cass Technical High School and at Mira Costa College in San Diego County. She is a recent graduate of the Academy for New Musical Theatre in Burbank (book and lyrics) where she wrote the book for Bank Shot, a short musical that was performed at Burbank’s Colony Theatre (2012) and UCIrvine (2013). Patrice was a 2013 finalist for a San Diego Foundation Creative Catalyst Fellowship and a 2014 finalist for an Elizabeth George Foundation Individual Grant.
© Patrice Cassedy 2014, First Serial Rights