Soldiers come in many guises. Some are camouflaged, steel helmets strapped on tightly, black boots shining from a thousand spit and polishes. Others may don a wet suit, snorkel protruding from the still waters of an enemy’s swamp.
Dee Andrus is a soldier, but she wears a sleek, black dress and sells cookies in the lobby.
Bruce Millan is a soldier, but he wears loafers and a sweater and quietly tends bar.
There are other soldiers here. Council Cargle and Barbara Busby eschew rifles and ammunition for face paint and costume changes. Frances Beeman does not guard some lonely desert outpost, but smiles as she stands sentry in a carpeted lobby, ripping tickets as the crowds walk past.
These are the veterans of the Detroit Repertory Theatre. And the war they’ve been fighting for more than 40 years has been a war on racism, sexism and ignorance in all its various cloaks. It’s not bombs or tanks or laser-guided missiles that make them powerful and resilient and threatening. It’s the “stage.”
And like others who have taken up the sword, donned armor and waved a flag above bloody fields, these men and women throw down some damn fine war stories.
The theater is located on Woodrow Wilson just off the Lodge Freeway in a part of Detroit that has suffered as many battles as the company. The riots of ’67 started not far from the theater.
Busby, longtime actress at the Rep, remembers tanks rumbling down Woodrow Wilson that summer. Hers is a voice you wouldn’t mind hearing recite the Yellow Pages. It’s resonant, raspy, erudite and sexy.
“These boys were on top of these things, rolling slowly down the street, rifles pointing out from their sides. When they passed by, people hit the ground, mostly because these kids [soldiers] looked so young no one wanted to be even accidentally shot.”
Millan, Andrus and Busby became acquainted in the ’50s. Millan had just come out of the Korean War, Andrus and Busby were fresh out of college and involved in the dramatic arts in varying capacities. They started as a traveling children’s theater troupe that toured Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Andrus, whose title is community outreach director, relates a mother’s comments to her after one of these performances: “This is much too good for children.”
This could be their mantra.
The theatre stages productions from November to June, a total of four plays this season. I saw What Next? — kind of a screwball comedy set in a log cabin. The audience was entirely engaged throughout the whole play, laughing, gasping, moaning, at one point even shouting warnings to a character in the play. This is not Stratford. Polite applause is replaced by whoops and exclamations. And it’s exactly what the soldiers love to hear.
“We like to think of the Detroit Repertory experience as a three-stage process for people who come down for the first time,” explains Millan, the troupe’s artistic director and all-around troubleshooter. “First, people see how nice our theater looks, they see the parking lot, they see all the cars and they say to themselves, ‘Wow, how surprising.’ Then they come into this beautiful lobby, see the long bar, see the artwork and they say, ‘Wow, how surprising.’ Then they go into the actual theater, they see a professionally produced play with great acting and they say, ‘Wow, how surprising.’ And then, we got ’em.”
Along the way, the thespians have impressed with their determination to bring meaningful, professional and socially aware theater to people who are historically ignored by so-called legitimate theater: the poor, the troubled, minorities.
Their vision includes a concept called “unity casting,” which means that an actor’s race is of little or no consequence. Of course, there are a few logical exceptions to this rule, but Millan thinks that these few exceptions exist only because people haven’t really caught up with the idea yet. He thinks there should be no exceptions, ever.
Casting black actors in traditionally white roles, and vice versa, met with intense controversy and criticism. It almost seems quaint in 2002, but in the ’60s and ’70s, it was revolutionary — and they were vilified.
“We never gave up the fight,” Millan says. “We always had a strong social commitment, and we still do. We wanted to make people want what we had to give. But it wasn’t easy.”
These soldiers marched, they protested, they wanted us out of Vietnam, they wanted civil rights and women’s liberation, and they wanted us to stop making nuclear weapons. In the early ’70s, they were investigated by the Red Squad (a secret police group that investigated subversives) after they allowed a communist history professor to lecture at the theater.
“They threatened to take our license away. They wanted names,” Millan says. “I told them nothing.”
They used to air underground films and have jam sessions at the theater a long time ago, to make the budget, to keep the lights on.
“We did everything we could to keep the place going,” Andrus explains.
Forty-five years is a long time to keep something going, to keep anything going. Especially an ideal. But the soldiers at Detroit Repertory Theatre know that’s what keeps them acting and directing and building sets and making costumes. And maybe they’ll sell a few cookies along the way.
The Detroit Repertory Theatre presents What Next? — a world premiere comedy by Jason Williams — through Dec. 29, with a special dinner theater presentation on New Year’s Eve. Information: 313-868-1347, or at www.detroitreptheatre.com.E-mail Dan DeMaggio at firstname.lastname@example.org