It was 1967. The first and only time I was in Detroit. As a young performer in the National Broadway Company, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, we came to town and our run was exactly the time of the famous Detroit Riots. By “accident” I was and the rest of my cast were captured in a historic event that shocked the country.
A member of a touring theatrical company is like living in a bubble moving from town to town insulated from day to day area events. But this was one event that had an all encompassing dramatic impact on everyone.
Our company was cast in New York. We all came from various backgrounds and were racially integrated. We were not prepared for what was to rupture. Friendships in the company had already developed and, perhaps, helped us become closer together in our “state of confinement” as the race riots broke into a city and people on fire.
I was recently out of college and had already experienced being a “gypsy” on the road with Hello, Dolly! But nothing prepared me or others for a race riot. There was nothing in the Actors’ Equity Association handbook that had a ruling about what to do during a riot. This was new territory for everyone.
Almost immediately the National Guard was put in place and the sight of military tanks in the middle of the city was quite startling. While under “siege” by the riots around us and the National Guard “protecting” us we were in an unusual position. It was a living hell in parts of the city. We were sequestered - “imprisoned” - most of the time high above the maddening crowd below. All performances, of course, were cancelled.
One night I could see from my hotel room some black men pulling up to a gas pump in a car and syphoning off gas. I t was obvious what their intent was. I thought at that moment, “If I were black I would likely be rioting too.” But I also learned at that time that all civility, social consciousness during a riot was completely torn apart. While people destroying their city, their own neighborhoods, they were tearing down their lives too - never to be repaired.
When it was safe for the city to go back to normal, we were called back to the theatre to perform. The opening number opens with the cast behind a scrim in silhouette while we sang in unison, On A Clear Day... How ironic!
We stood in our places like statues in the dark, as it was staged. As the curtain went up revealing us - we truly felt vulnerable and exposed for the first time since the riots began.