Duggan pays tribute to the Detroiters who rose to prominence on Broadway
Mayor Mike Duggan honored a host of Broadway luminaries Sunday at a ceremony celebrating Detroit’s contributions to Broadway.
Held in the rotunda of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Broadway Returns to Detroit also served as the kickoff for the Black Theater Network’s annual conference, held this year in Detroit.
The city’s Department of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship organized the event. The winners were:
- Michael R. Jackson, Cass Technical High School graduate who received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize and 2022 Tony Award for Best Musical for “A Strange Loop.”
- Dominique Morisseau, Cass Tech graduate, award-winning playwright, MacArthur genius, and executive artistic director of Detroit Public Theater. She was nominated for Tony Awards for her screenplays for the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud” and the Detroit drama “Skeleton Crew,” which won a Tony Award for actress Phylicia Rashad this year.
- Ron Simons, Detroit native and four-time producer and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment. His productions include “For Colored Girls”, “Jitney” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”.
- Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winning actor, writer and director who spent formative years in Detroit during his youth. Nominated six times for the Tony Awards, he directed the recent cover of “Jitney” by August Wilson produced by Simons as well as “Skeleton Crew” by Morisseau.
- Chanté Adams, Cass Tech graduate and winner of this year’s Ford Vanguard Essence Award for Black Women in Hollywood. She had starring roles in the Netflix movie “Roxanne, Roxanne” and “A Journal for Jordan,” and performed on Broadway in Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”
- Marilyn McCormick, a retired Cass Tech theater educator who received a 2016 Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education for inspiring generations of students to find successful careers in entertainment. Jackson, Morisseau and Adams are among McCormick’s former students.
- Woodie King Jr., legendary stage and screen director and producer and founding director of New York’s New Federal Theater. He graduated from high school in 1956 in Detroit and worked for Ford Motor Co. and the city of Detroit before turning to acting.
Duggan presented each of the winners with a key to the city, and a bronze bust of King by artist Stan Watts was unveiled. The Wright Museum will be his permanent home. Coleman A. Young II also helped present the surprise Spirit of Detroit Awards to ACE Director Rochelle Riley and the Black Theater Network itself in honor of the occasion.
The Black Theater Network also announced plans to open an office in Detroit to deepen its relationship with the city and “elevate black theater in the city.”
“It’s so wonderful to be back home,” said group president K. Zaheerah Sultan, a Detroit native. “There’s nothing like the spirit of Detroit. We celebrate creativity, the ability to thrive, the heart of Detroit. Reconnecting with this community and growing and thriving together is very important to us.
Santiago-Hudson spoke of Motor City’s resilience during his acceptance speech, citing the city’s “never die attitude” and willingness “to drive until the wheels drop.”
“I’m honored and grateful to be back in my second home,” he said, “and I feel proud and happy and filled with joy and grace that I can be the adopted son of one of the greatest cities in the world: Detroit… It (means) the world to me Because of the love, the power, the energy you gave me, the grace you showed me, the the generosity you gave me….it changed the course of my career, and I’m here today grateful to all of you.
Simons recalled how his grandfather traveled north from Statesboro, Georgia in the 1950s to seek a better life.
“It’s because of this city that no matter where I go, no matter what I do, no matter how I operate, I take Detroit with me, because Detroit taught me black excellence from the start.”
Morisseau smirked as she began her speech.
“Even though recognition isn’t something we always get,” she said, “we have to do it whether we get recognition or not. But this here…this is the one I have wanted my whole life. I care so much about this city that built me.”
She also praised McCormick, as did Adams and other alumni.
“I never thought I would be here so early in my career, so it’s an incredible honor,” Adams said. “I’m a little flabbergasted to be here in front of my high school drama teacher, which is why I’m here. Honestly, this is for you.
McCormick, who couldn’t stand his speech, spoke lovingly of his students.
“There was a time when I couldn’t walk at all,” she said. “I didn’t walk until I was 14. And today, even though I’m sitting, I’m soaring. I fly with the eagles, and that’s because of my former students.”
King, dressed in a white linen suit, recalled the years before his work in New York changed the landscape for black talent.
“When I graduated from Cass Tech, there were no black acting teachers,” he recalls. “No black artists were invited. There was no room for black artists.”
The theme of this year’s Black Theater Network conference, Scripting the Flip, is a play on the phrase “flipping the script” and reflects how the opportunities have changed for black performers. Detroit native Michael Dinwiddie, an associate professor of playwriting at New York University, explained that a key event in the timeline happened in Detroit.
In 1922, famed blackface performer Bert Williams performed a show at Detroit’s Garrick Theater while very ill. He sweated profusely during his time on stage and his dark-faced makeup began to run, which audience members thought was part of the show. They laughed and Williams finally broke down. The curtain fell to loud applause, but Williams had to be swept away and died soon after.
“The most famous blackface artist of all time last performed in Detroit,” Dinwiddie said. “Blackface ended here. And later, we started having black empowerment in our theatrical scene here. The images that came from people like (playwrights) Ron Milner and Bill Harris gave us a way to see ourselves differently from how we had been projected and presented in the culture. It’s scripting the turnaround, and we aim to do more.