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New musical captures life in Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood

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Plowshares Theatre
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Plowshares Theatre Company presents the new musical Hastings Street, written and scored by John Sloan III and Kris Johnson.

Prior to World War II and the beginning of the postwar era, Detroit was home to a thriving, predominantly Black community called the Black Bottom neighborhood. Along with nearby Paradise Valley, Black Bottom was known as a hub for commerce, music, and community - until it was torn down in the late 1940s and 1950s to make room for Lafayette Park and I-375.

Although some native Detroiters grew up hearing stories about Black Bottom from family and community members, there are many people who have never heard the tale of the burgeoning Black neighborhood; or its eventual demise. Enter Hastings Street, a new musical written and scored by local artists John Sloan III and Kris Johnson. Through the power of song, dance, and spoken word, the show hopes to bridge this knowledge gap and share the legacy of Black Bottom with the world.

Presented by Plowshares Theatre Company from July 21 - 31, 2022, Hastings Street follows the Carsons, a Black family that attempts to navigate the changes in their own lives and the community around them. Through their characters, the creators aimed to paint a picture of life in Black Bottom that focused on all aspects of life in that era.

“We worked really hard to make sure we could find joy in this story as well. We're not interested in telling more stories framing the Black experience only through trauma. Being able to tell this story in this way with Kris with music and framing it around what it means to be a part of the community, to feel joy in that community - that was really the goal for us,” Sloan said.

Together, Sloan and Johnson worked to create a piece that reflected the lived experiences of the residents of Black Bottom while incorporating classic aspects of Detroit music and culture. Although Sloan wrote the script and Johnson primarily wrote the score, the two collaborated on the score to create a cohesive musical that featured a uniquely Detroit sound.

“I think the ending result really ended up becoming a hybrid of the two of us in a very unique way. I don't think you would listen to the show and say, Oh, that's absolutely John, or, Oh, that's absolutely Kris,” Johnson said. “We really wanted that to be a representation of both of our styles and also to be a true representation of the African-American experience, particular to Detroit, as well as just really dynamic storytelling.”

While the musical is planned to run in-person for two weeks, Plowshares also hosted a virtual concert to allow theatergoers a sneak peek of the original score. According to Sloan and Johnson, this enabled the company to work together in a new way while allowing the musical to become more accessible to everyone in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being able to work with the musicians and the actors remotely, being able to put that together, being able to have a dynamic presentation that reached a lot of people and really started to get people excited about the show - I think it breathed a different life into this particular show and kind of made us look at our creation process differently,” Johnson said.

Through a rousing score that features Motown, jazz, and blues influences, Hastings Street aims to bring the story of one of Detroit’s most prominent, cultural, and historical Black neighborhoods to life in a new and exciting way. Whether it’s in-person or online, viewers and listeners alike will have a chance to go back in time to experience an important and influential piece of Detroit history.

“It's one thing to hear those stories from your grandparents or aunts and uncles, and it's something else to be able to do that research and focus on wanting to tell those stories the right way and do those stories proud,” Sloan said. “So, you know, this is hopefully an expansive story. It's hopefully one that celebrates all aspects of being a Black Detroiter at that time.

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Anna is a senior at Michigan State University studying journalism with a concentration in international reporting.
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