poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

May 17, 2011

THIS WEEKEND: Mosaic’s Play on Northern High School 1966 Student Strike in Detroit

 Last weekend, we took our kindergartner to see the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s production of Northern Lights 1966: The Powerful True Story of Detroit Students Who Stood Up For Their Rights and Won and she loved it; we all loved it. It is the moving inspiration that we need, in a time when all levels of education in Detroit and throughout Michigan are in a crisis. Anyone who believes in people power and values education should see this play! This weekend is the last chance to see it. There is a special student matinee on May 19, half priced tickets on May 20, and closing performances on May 21-22, 2011, all at the Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts).

 With an original play written by former Detroiter and current NYU Prof. Michael Dinwiddie, the Mosaic youth performers are excellent actors who perfectly punctuate the script by singing songs of the time between scenes and set changes. All of the 72-member cast of Northern Lights 1966 are believable actors because they are high school students playing their own age, lead by actors Charles Hurt, Nathan Alford-Tate,and Joselyn Hill. Kudos to our friend Courtney Burkett, who brilliantly directed the play. In the playbill she writes,

“This story is one of triumph, of rising above adversity, and standing up for what is right. . . When the inequities of their education reached a point that was no longer tolerable, these students created a new reality.  . . Unfortunately, the problems that plagued the students on Northern High School in 1966 are many of the same problems that plague the system today, forty five years later.”

Northern High School was an historic school in Detroit, with many famous alumni, including Aretha Franklin, Betty Shabazz, and Smokey Robinson. It is where the Motown singing group later called “The Miracles” was founded.

The day we went to see the Northern Lights 1966 play, Rick Sperling, Founder and CEO of Mosaic, introduced some Northern High School alumni who were in attendance. One who stood up was Karl Gregory, a Wayne State University Professor who, we find out later in the play, helped the students. In April 1966, more than 1000 students at Northern went on strike to protest inequities and unfair treatment at the school.  During their walk-out, they decided to start their own Freedom School and asked Dr. Gregory to become the Principal; he managed to get other university professors to be teachers during the 2.5 week strike. It was cool to see the audience reaction to the dozens of actors who were portraying people that they knew. I won’t spoil the ending for you, because you really need to see this play.

Lastly, we were extra proud to see a shout-out in the program insert to our colleague and friend, Stephen Ward, Assistant Professor in the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and the Residential College at the University of Michigan, who directed the historical research done by UM students in the Semester-in-Detroit program and funded by the UM Arts of Citizenship. As an oral historian, one part I appreciated the most was the use of archival images on screens in the backdrop during different scenes and even intermission. You can read more about Stephen’s Semester-in-Detroit project that lead to the play and see archival images HERE: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/lsa_alumni/Home/_TOPNAV_LSA%20Magazine/2009%20Fall/09fall-p42-43.pdf

Stephen is also on the Board of the Boggs Center and just published the book Pages From a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader.  Reading that book, alongside The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, and seeing the play Northern Lights 1966 should give you plenty of inspiration to accomplish anything: even, and especially in Detroit.

Go see the play THIS WEEKEND and  tell me what you think! 🙂

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See related Detroit News article:  “Play reprises student protest at Northern High”

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Emily P. Lawsin is a spoken word performance poet and the co-author of Filipino Women in Detroit: 1945-1955. She teaches Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies in the Program in American Culture and Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.


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