Statera VOICES | Sam White

"Statera Voices" is a series dedicated to reclaiming dominant culture narratives as a means towards gender balance in the theater and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own terms and in our own voices. 

Today's offering comes from ground-breaking artist and producer Sam White, Founder and Artistic Director of Shakespeare in Detroit. A native Detroiter, White was recently named one of Crain's Detroit's 40 Under 40, which honors the community's high achievers. She also gave a passionate talk about sharing Shakespeare at the 2014 TEDxDetroit conference at the Detroit Opera House in September 2014. White, a featured guest speaker at Statera's  2015 summer conference on gender equity in the theatre, has also been featured via Crain's Detroit Business, Fox 2 News Detroit, WDIV Channel 4 News, Detroit Free Press, BBC World News and Southwest Magazine. 

photo by Cybelle Codish

photo by Cybelle Codish

Imitate the Action of the Tiger

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man. As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger” is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” that has resonated with me, as of late. 

I started Shakespeare in Detroit, officially, more than two years ago with our very first production, “Othello”, at a park in the city called Grand Circus Park on the patch of green grass and concrete right outside of Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. It was thrilling to witness 500 people watching Shakespeare in the park for the first time in the city’s history. I believe there was a Canadian group that would come each year in the early 2000s and perform during an arts festival. But we were a group of local, talented artists putting on a play in our hometown. This was thrilling for me and as a girl who grew up only a few miles away, I felt blessed to be the engine for this play that turned into a bit of a movement. I was humbled that this show was well received. As the support of our shows continued, my ‘modest stillness’ grew more and more.

I was happy for the two years of creating and producing that I had been blessed with, and I was perfectly fine doing what we were doing. I was content. But then something happened during “Macbeth” in Detroit’s New Center Park this past summer. I was walking around as the show was going on, making sure that I was available to my team as we were spread all over the park. While making my rounds I saw a group of kids, about four or five of them, sitting on the steps. I walked over and explained to them that they couldn’t sit there. Sitting on steps in the middle of an amphitheater isn’t permitted. But the more important reason I moved them was because I wanted these beautiful brown faces to move closer to the stage. They were all around eight to ten years old – the same age I was when my mom introduced me to Shakespeare. I moved them to the front of the house, to a few seats that I had reserved for myself and my friends.  This is when I had a revelation or, better yet, I remembered the most important reason to produce Shakespeare in my hometown. 

It’s really cool that Shakespeare in Detroit has a wide demographic of supporters, audience members and advocates. I am so grateful for the opportunity to pioneer the city’s first, full-fledged Shakespeare company and offer a free show every summer. It has been such a wonderful and sweet surprise that we have been able to create great awareness for the company in a short period of time. But the most important thing we can do, I can do, is ensure that we represent and showcase diversity – real diversity that looks like the city in which we perform, the country we live in and the world around us. 

More than ever, cultural understanding is crucial to our lives. If there is any industry in the world that is responsible for serving as a gateway to it, it is theatre. We have the opportunity to share the stories of all sorts of people – black, brown, white, men, women, children and others. When I saw these kids at “Macbeth” at New Center Park, I asked myself if they had actors onstage that looked like them so that while they were sitting in the front row they might be inspired to investigate Shakespeare further. The answer was: yes, thank goodness.  Let’s be honest, the first thing we experience when we see someone for the first time is the way that they look, and if a black or brown kid looks onstage and doesn’t see a black or brown face, the experience could escape them. I was 14 years old when I saw Laurence Fishburne as “Othello” opposite Kenneth Branagh, and it really opened Shakespeare up for me. I had already been reading it, but seeing that film really changed things for me as it felt more relatable and resonated because the protagonist looked like me. Simple but true. 

I always find it a little disconcerting when I see theatre in Detroit – a city that is still primarily black – that doesn’t represent it. It’s a challenge that I am tasked with as a producer and that I am committed to making a priority this season as I get back in the director’s chair at my company. If we as theater creators want diverse, culturally responsible companies, we have to include everyone. This will entice audiences of all kinds to come support our work. 

Representing our diverse world is personally important to me as a double minority, a black woman. I have the opportunity and responsibility to hire people who look like me. I have been able to create my own company and path. It’s vital that I take others along for this challenging, beautiful ride. 

Speaking of this ride that I am on, I have been asked why I choose to produce the work of “a white guy from 450 years ago.” In the spirit of equity, I am not limited to producing any specific work. I love Shakespeare and so I produce it. Women, minorities and any artists in the world should have the opportunity to create what inspires them. The point of art is to recognize our common experiences which lead us to the understanding that we’re all more alike than we are different. The moment we all realize this, the world will be a much safer place and our theaters will entice more beautifully diverse audiences. 

We all love theater and are happy to be doing what we are doing in our roles. But now is the time to ‘imitate the action of the tiger’ and create opportunities for women in theater and people of color.  We need more theater and people onstage and off that reflect everyone. Our theaters need it. Our world needs it.