Looking to the Future, Recalling the Past

African American Theater Art Troupe to celebrate 25th anniversary with production of ‘Detroit 67’

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Detroit ‘67 explores the inter-racial relationship between an African-American man and a White woman in the midst of the 1967 Detroit riots. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Detroit ‘67 explores the inter-racial relationship between an African-American man and a White woman in the midst of the 1967 Detroit riots. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

The Temptations are blasting from an eight-track and a raised, black fist is painted on the wall. It’s 1967 in Detroit, Michigan and Motown is alive onstage at the UC Santa Cruz Second Stage Theater Arts.

African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) presents “Detroit ’67,” the first part of a three-play cycle titled, “The Detroit Projects” by award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau. The show will run from March 2-5 at 7 p.m.

The five UCSC cast members are Khadijat Dania, Sterling Scott, Jazmine Logan, Demetrius Youngblood, Kseniya Yumasheva. Ephraim “Jay” Edem is Youngblood’s understudy. Scott and Youngblood’s suave personalities mixed with Logan and Dania’s confident performances demonstrate how life for people who are Black today is rooted in America’s history and events like the violent Detroit riots in 1967.

It’s a story of brother and sister, Chelle (Dania) and Lank (Youngblood), whose dream to turn their parent’s basement into a hip nightclub falls apart when the reality of 1967 Detroit hits. Riots erupt among the police and the community. These ongoing racial tensions and struggles for freedom open a discussion for conversation surrounding race in America today.

Actors from the African American Theater Arts Troupe rehearse for the play Detroit ‘67 which explores the history of racial tension in the United States. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Actors from the African American Theater Arts Troupe rehearse for the play Detroit ‘67 which explores the history of racial tension in the United States. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

“I grew up in Michigan, near Detroit,” said AATAT founder and artistic director Don Williams. “I had each cast member write a two-page paper of their character […] I wanted them to grasp the reality of Detroit because it’s a different style. They’re no longer Californians.”

Celebrating AATAT’s 25th anniversary, “Detroit ’67” carries on the organization’s mission to improve the quality of life for Black students through cultural representation and professional opportunities. “Detroit ’67” has a five-member cast, and recruiting Black actors at UCSC was difficult for Williams.

“Part of why we started [AATAT] was to create some tension,” Williams said. “It’s hard for an African American to go to a school like this. A lot are from L.A. and Oakland, and you go to Kresge and Stevenson where you look to the left and you look to the right and you’re on your own.”

During the 2015-2016 academic year, about 2 percent of UCSC students identified as Black. Williams said AATAT brings conversations of race to UCSC by allowing the audience to “sneak in through people’s lives,” and creating a culturally inclusive community for theater participants and the audience.

AATAT’s first performance in 1992 — “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” — raised $1,500, which established the African American Student Scholarship Fund. AATAT has earned over $100,000 for five annual scholarships since 1991. Third-year and assistant director of “Detroit ’67”, Georgina Rios, received a scholarship this year.

“I feel pretty lucky,” Rios said. “The first person I told was my mom because she is not really into the idea of me being an art student […] I wanted to let her know that the things I’m doing here are not just for nothing.”

The African American Theater Arts Troupe is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Founder, Don Williams, started the AATAT in May 1992 to support the professional growth of African American actors at UCSC. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
The African American Theater Arts Troupe is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Founder, Don Williams, started the AATAT in May 1992 to support the professional growth of African American actors at UCSC. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Rios said the scholarship makes her think about her future in the theater arts industry.

From March 10-11, AATAT and the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CAD) invite UCSC alumni to Santa Cruz, including Niketa Calame who voiced young Nala in “The Lion King.” Alumni will host acting workshops and give advice on entering the entertainment industry to provide AATAT students with connections and knowledge.

“I have these ideas that I want to work on, but it’s really hard after I graduate because what’s the next step?” Rios said. “These are people who are alumni. They had the same struggle. They had the same thoughts, and I hope I can gain some inspiration.”