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A burning city and troubled times

Dominique Morisseau’s play “Detroit ‘67” has actually appeared twice this year on the Fresno State theater season schedule: once as a spring production to be performed in front of a live audience; and the other — after the pandemic struck — reimagined as a virtual production that will join all the other filmed entertainments out there fighting for screen space these days on your TV or computer monitor.

Pictured above: Nwachukwu Oputa plays Chelle in ‘Detroit ’67.’ Photo: Fresno State

Such is the life of a theater director these days. Thomas-Whit Ellis had to shift gears when he moved the title from spring to fall, where “Detroit ‘67” is now in its opening weekend and playing through Saturday, Dec. 12. (Be aware that the delivery model is not streaming on demand; it’s more like making a date for a stage performance or old network TV, with a specified start time (7:30 p.m. for evening shows and 2 p.m. for a Sunday matinee). Tickets are $15 per device. You can get them here.

I interviewed Ellis in August for a story about Fresno State’s shift from live performance to virtual. You can read that story here.

I also caught up with actor Nwachukwu Oputa, who plays one of the leading roles. She is a theater department veteran. Here’s my interview:

Q: Were you in the first cast of “Detroit ’67” originally planned for spring at Fresno State?

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A: I was not in the cast, but I was assistant director in the spring and that title transferred into the fall.

Q: I know that the university had strict rules about social distancing while rehearsing and filming this production. Can you give us a feel for what it was like?

A: We were required to wear masks the entire rehearsal process. All of our blocking was required to stay within CDC guidelines. This meant we were 6 feet apart and could not touch any of the same props, etc.

Q: What do you call this style of acting? Is it a hybrid of film and theater?

A: It is definitely a blend but not on the acting side, more the staging side. Professor Ellis had us perform as if it were on stage, but we had to change blocking for camera angles, we didn’t have an audience, and we had to cut or retake things for continuity sake.

Q: You play Chelle, a woman living in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in 1967 Detroit. She runs an after-hours nightclub in the basement of the family home that she has inherited with her brother, Lank, who has ambitious plans to buy a real bar. Chelle is the much more practical of the two. I’ve seen her described in several reviews as “clear headed.” Do you agree? How would you describe her outlook on the world?

A: I think she is clear headed in some ways. She goes through life trying to survive and maintain while Lank wants to thrive and move up in the world. She thinks about the practical and the here and now, but Lank dreams about the future.

Q: In real life, do you lean more toward the impulsive (like Lank) or practical (Chelle)?

A: I’m honestly a mix. I am a huge dreamer. I have so many things I want to do and ways I want to change the world. However, I try not to be too impulsive. I try to think of the practical way I can get things done. I use my heart to inspire me, my soul to guide me, and my brain to get me where I want to be.

Q: The backdrop to the play is the famous racial riots of 1967. Before this play, how much did you know about them? What have you learned about them that sticks with you?

A: Before this play, I knew the bare minimum. What sticks with me most now is the fact that not much has changed. Police are still profiling and killing Black folks; we are still doing all we can to get by while hoping for something better; and we are still being villainized for fighting for our right to live without persecution.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from the play?

A: That there are multiple sides to every story. There is pain in every community for one reason or another and until you hear their stories, you will never understand their decisions.

Q: Give us an update on yourself.

A: This is my last semester at Fresno State. I am currently just trying to get by in this ever-changing world we live in. Soon, I’ll be applying to grad schools and I hope to be able to spend time working in the theater world before eventually getting into education. I love children and I know I can and will be an impactful educator.

Q: Tell us one fun thing about yourself that most people might not know.

A: I have never eaten a Twinkie!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Check out Danny Glover’s endorsement of the show! It’s on the University Theatre social media pages.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thanks so much, Donald. You are making sure we know when and how to access things happening in the arts scene. I credit you for both getting me there, and being ready for the experience. Preparing to view Detroit 67.

    reply

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