Theatre department streams second production in ‘Detroit ‘67’

A “Detroit ‘67” poster displayed inside the Speech Arts building outside of the John Wright Theatre. (Alex Yanez/The Collegian)

The Fresno State theatre department is about to unveil its second production that was filmed under COVID-19 restrictions — “Detroit ‘67.”

The play was originally set to release in the middle of March, but it was canceled after universities across the country had closed their doors and sent students home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Detroit ’67” would have begun on March 20 and run until March 28.

Now, the play will stream online from Dec. 4-12 at 7:30 p.m. each night. On Dec. 6, the show will stream at 2 p.m. 

The theatre department decided to live stream their three main productions through Showtix4u, a website that charges $15 per stream and allows viewers to make donations to the department.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ‘67” tells the story of two siblings, Chelle and Lank, who run a small private club in Detroit, Michigan, during the summer of 1967. However, tensions start to build in the siblings’ house when they bring in a young white woman at the same time as the Detroit race riots are taking place. 

Fresno State play director Thomas-Whit Ellis told the Collegian in January that the play is a very good look at present day racial injustice and intolerance through the lens of America 50 years ago.

“Much of what we see today in terms of rampant excessive force by law enforcement, judicial bias, underemployment and poverty, is pretty much the way it was then,” Ellis said at the time. “In most of the important social and political aspects of this nation, the needle hasn’t moved.”

Ellis added in a following interview in March that the play was picked by the department because of its music. He said at the time the play “sheds light on the ‘Motown Sound.’ ”

Working amidst a pandemic, Ellis said that, unlike “Darkside,” this play moved back to a more traditional setup with interactions between actors and an actual set. To help ensure everyone’s safety involved, the production team took certain precautions and avoided sharing props to limit the spread of germs. The group decided to dedicate specific props to each castmate and ensure there was no cross-contamination.  

“Pre-COVID, you could play a lot with the proximity of the two actors, but we couldn’t really do that. We could only get close to six feet apart from each other. So we had to be creative in that aspect and figure out different ways to show romantic attraction and intimacy while maintaining a distance,” said Madeline Nelson, a sophomore and theater art major starring as the character Caroline in the play.

Actors and actresses were asked to bring their own prop food and drinks for scenes that involved meals to ensure safety. 

“There’s food in the play, so I had to make my own food, the other character had to make his own food and then again, movie magic swapped it that way and we’re like, you know, I can only touch my food, he can only touch his food,” Nelson said. 

With Detroit ‘67 set to take place during the 1967 riots of Detroit, it was necessary to express its style and fashion. Because of the restrictions in place, it gave cast members a chance to design and develop their characters’ costumes for the play. 

“It was nice also because with the pandemic I’m not going out as much. And so, like, I’m not really dressing up. So it was nice to do like makeup, just go in this room and walk around on the stage,” said Nwachukwu Oputa, a senior majoring in theater arts who will play Chelle.

Looking back, Nelson appreciated the change in pace with the restrictions and having to film. 

“Because you have to get on stage, there’s an audience right there to see it. But since we were filming it, it was kind of like, and I’m already here. I’m only doing this one costume. I’m only doing this one makeup look. I don’t have to worry about changing my make up. And if we mess up, we just record again,” Nelson said. 

Ellis said the department is dedicated to give an authentic experience with any production they undertake, and they lost some of that this semester due to the pandemic. He anticipates the production to be a different experience for all the cast members since no one will be able to see the audience’s reaction and learn from people’s responses. 

“We have to maintain a critical eye to detail with the same dedication you would expect in any large budget movie or Broadway show,” Ellis said.

With the play set to debut this weekend, Oputa hopes the audience will take away some key points.

“I hope people enjoy it. I also hope that when we’re able to get back to some normalcy, I hope that people still come out and see live performances,” Oputa said.

Written with a contribution from Andrea Marin Contreras and Zaeem Shaikh

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