Shining the Spotlight on Black Theater

AATAT celebrates 25th anniversary after performing ‘Detroit ’67’

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Love interests Chelle and Sly dance to classic Motown hits blasting from the 8-track player n Chelle's basement-turned-night club. Photo by Cal Tobias
Love interests Chelle and Sly dance to classic Motown hits blasting from the 8-track player n Chelle’s basement-turned-night club. Photo by Cal Tobias

“Reach Out I’ll Be There” echoes throughout the room as lead character Chelle dances across the stage. She sings the famous Motown song in remembrance of her close friend Sly, who has just been killed by police during the Detroit riots of 1967. The lights dimmed, and the audience stood up, giving the cast an exuberant standing ovation.

Students, staff and families packed Theater Arts Second Stage last Sunday to see the final weekend performance of “Detroit ’67” by the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary March 10-11.

Written as part of a three-play cycle called “The Detroit Projects” by playwright and actress Dominique Morisseau, the play explores economic instability and the tension between the police and Black community — issues still very relevant today.

“[AATAT] exposes our campus to African American theater productions,” said second-year student and first-time AATAT actress Jazmine Logan who played Chelle’s friend Bunny. “It provides a historical glimpse into the lives of African American men and women.”

The 1967 Detroit riots, some of the deadliest and most destructive in the U.S., were incited by police violence and a pattern of racial targeting. The riots started out as a police raid on an unlicensed bar and erupted into five days of looting, property destruction and about 7,000 arrests.

The play follows five characters, including siblings Chelle, played by Khadijat Dania, and Lank, played by Demetrius Youngblood, living in Detroit in the late sixties.

The dynamic portrayal of Chelle and Lank makes for an emotional play as both characters experience personal growth and devastating moments in their lives during the tumultuous time.

AATAT puts on a show every winter, casting UC Santa Cruz students with various levels of experience to give everyone an equal opportunity to be involved. AATAT’s extensive list of plays, from comedies to dramas, explore underrepresented experiences and promote the less famous plays written by Black playwrights.

Lank and Sly sit in the basement that lank and his sister Chelle have converted into an after-hours club. Photo by Cal Tobias
Lank and Sly sit in the basement that lank and his sister Chelle have converted into an after-hours club. Photo by Cal Tobias.

UCSC is still the only UC with a Black theater program, which is made up of both AATAT and Rainbow Theater and was founded as a basis for students to explore theater arts.

“I felt like I was really able to be more in touch and gain more insight with my culture, which was especially interesting for me to discover through my passion for acting,” actress Jazmine Logan said.

Chelle and Lank both deal with their opposing views on freedom and race relations. Chelle focuses on getting friends and family through the day to day struggles of living in Detroit, while Lank pursues his dream of owning his own bar. The siblings’ contradicting attachments to an old record player and a newer 8-track tape foreshadow their opposing values even though both can play the Motown music they love.

Many of the audience members, including second-year student Tobin Mitchell, were particularly struck by the death of the character Sylvester “Sly,” played by Sterling Scott, due to police violence.

“The actors did a really good job at using their emotions,” Mitchell said. “The only scenes you see are in the basement, so you don’t see anything else going on outside, besides hearing what the characters have to say, and you don’t realize how bad [the violence] is.”

Photo by Cal Tobias
Photo by Cal Tobias.

Although the brutality and destruction of the riots remain unseen, consequences like the death of Sly strike the audience through the emotion of the actors.

The director, Don Williams, chooses plays that touch on historical moments in the lives of Black people in the U.S.

Since 1991, Williams has mentored AATAT to bring Black voices and experiences to the UCSC campus. Williams sees the importance of having an organization for students to come together, citing the theatrical involvement of 30 of the 200 Black students at UCSC, especially because UCSC has a Black identifying student population of around 2 percent.

“So many of them learn about their own culture. […] You don’t get that in high school,” Williams said. “We can count the amount of [Black history] classes you have on one hand, even here, so we do plays.”

The program is a way to recruit and retain Black students while also supporting them through annual scholarships of up to $5,000 awarded to students with outstanding academic achievement and leadership skills. The alumni support network has kept AATAT’s community growing with the resources to support more students.

“Students that come back give back, and say, ‘I’m gonna do that every year. I’m gonna give you a few hundred dollars.’ And I say thank you,” Williams said. “It really makes a difference.”

This weekend, AATAT’s 25th anniversary celebration will include alumni panel discussions, workshops, dinner and dancing. On the final night, the actors will perform an excerpt of “Detroit ’67”.

“We survive because of the people in this room, and they come in every race, in every creed and every color,” Williams said. “It’s important as a people across the board to understand the cultures that we live with every day.”