This past Friday, February 17, 2012 at the Academy for New Musical Theatre (ANMT) in North Hollywood, California, the Dramatists Guild of America held a reading of the new drama by San Diego-based Patrice Cassedy called “Detroit Blues,” as part of their “Friday Night Footlights.” The play was directed by Monique Gaffney, actress, playwright, and Executive Director of Common Ground Theatre in San Diego. As the name implies it was set in the city of Detroit and at the time of one of the largest racial riots in American History, 1967. Cassedy lived in Detroit as a young girl when the riots occurred. As an adult, she went back to Detroit for her son’s wedding and decided to revisit that time with an adult’s eye and research its history.
The riot is just a point of conflict in this piece that is really about the lives of an African American family and a young daughter Claudia (read by Tamika Katon-Donegal) and her childhood friends Amelia (read by Alaina Gianci) and blind Thomas (read by seeing Ephraim Lopez) in a time of great change in Detroit and the world. Cassedy uses this family to explore the impact of the riots. She explores the impact of desegregation on jobs, the Vietnam War, racial bigotry, the danger or firearms, and first love.
Claudia’s family consists of her father Dr. Childs, read by Kim Estes, mother Lilly, read by Tara Thomas, and her aunt Rose, read by Valerie J. Ludwig. Through these older characters we see the impact of desegregation and the effect of being educated and having careers but being treated as less by others because of color. The older generation is haunted by demons from the past and by some of the negative impacts of attempts to change for the better. The children though offer a sense of hope that the changes made will lead to a better tomorrow. But the play clearly shows it is not an easy path to equality.
Of interest perhaps to the playwrights reading this, is Cassedy’s use of the literary technique from Shakespeare, a play within a play. Part of the story involves the children putting on a little play and there are definite references to Hamlet. The title itself also has a double meaning. The term “Detroit Blues” also refers to blues music of Detroit. To bring the riots into the play, Cassedy uses urgent phone calls to Dr. Childs at the Hospital, and a blues singer announcer on the radio, one Essie Mae (inspired by Martha Jean Steinbrg, “the Queen,” an iconic Detroit DJ from the time) played by Charlene Modeste who also acts as the vocals for the character of Rose. In addition, the singing is accompanied by a live piano player, Richard Sears.
This story is high drama laced with moments of beautiful humanity. It has the emotional level and action to be converted into a script or film, but is written at this point to be easily conducted on a stage. Patrice Cassedy is currently studying at the ANMT and believes the piece has film as well as theatrical potential. She commented that she saw an interview with Viola Davis wanting to see some upward mobile female characters such as Claudia’s mother. The writing has a level of emotional challenge any actors would be happy to take on.
For more information about the FREE Friday Night Footlights Play Reading series see the Dramatists Guild of America website.