This April, southwest Detroit's Matrix Theatre Company will celebrate a remarkable milestone: a quarter century of bringing unique performances to Detroit audiences. But before its formal birthday party, which will take place at a ticketed gala at the Gem Theatre on June 16, there is an even more appropriate way to celebrate Matrix's legacy of theatre, community, and social justice in Detroit—by checking out the company's latest production, "agua de luna (psalms for the rouge)," a play comissioned especially for the theater's silver anniversary debuting later this month.
Written by Obie Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich, the bilingual play explores how the lives of three couples intersect with a 108-year old woman named Teresa de Los Angeles. The show, which delves into themes like missed connections, being a survivor, and "everyday magic," runs from Feb. 26-March 20.
Over its 25-year history, the Matrix Theatre Company
has earned a reputation for working with community members to create original, locally-relevant productions. It also stages non-original shows (like "agua de luna") and runs a school that teaches youth ages 5-18 about playwriting, puppetry, and performance.
Torri Lynn Ashford with a puppet at Matrix Theatre
Dr. Shaun Nethercott, who founded Matrix in 1991 with her husband Wes, says the theater’s community-oriented programming stems directly from its social justice mission. "Matrix is really about using theater as a tool to build and change community," she says. "We do that by education. We do that by creating plays. We do that by using theater as a tool to engage with people on issues of concern for them."
Prior to founding the Matrix, the Nethercotts, who are Wyoming natives, worked as freelance theater professionals during the 1980s, plying their trade in the American South and West and as far away as England. The couple's first glimpse of Michigan came when Shaun got a job in Flint working on a play about the 1936-37 Sit-Down Strike against General Motors. Later, the Nethercotts would venture to Detroit and be captivated by what they saw.
"We came to Detroit in '89 and saw that Detroit was really, really underserved artistically," says Dr. Nethercott. "There was so much foment and stress, even then, and so many people looking how to do it differently in Detroit. It was really exciting to us."
The Nethercotts ended up moving to southwest Detroit and launching the Matrix Theatre Company on April 16, 1991. Initially, they sustained the project by touring the neighborhood and region with original plays. In 2001, they opened the Bagley Street playhouse that is now Matrix’s home base.
The Matrix Theatre
Relevant, community-driven theater
Depending on the project, the Matrix Theatre Company’s original plays are written collectively by the Matrix Writers Circle
, members of the community, or by youth attending Matrix's School of Theatre.
Some more memorable productions include "Ambassador," which examined efforts by the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge to buy up property in southwest Detroit through the metaphor of La Malinche, the native wife of conquistador Hernán Cortés; "Southwest Story," a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" that shed light on tensions between the city’s Latino and African American communities; and the multi-year "Ghost Waters" initiative, a series of plays and puppetry projects centered around Detroit’s water heritage and resources.
Throughout its history, Matrix has won numerous distinctions from institutions like the Oakland Press and Detroit City Council—and even a 2003 Governor’s Award for Arts and Culture.
It’s also developed strong local ties. When word gets out about a new production, folks often get in touch to share topically-relevant stories. In turn, the plays can also end up stimulating community dialogue.
Nestled in one of the most diverse neighborhoods of Detroit, the Matrix Theatre has done an impressive job of getting people of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and abilities involved in its work. Nethercott says she's especially proud of the youth who’ve been involved with Matrix, many of whom have gone on to become activists and community change-makers.
Damon Whitman, 19, is one of those young folks who grew up with the theater company. Currently a student at Western Michigan University, he joined Matrix's summer camp in 2008 and went on to join the Matrix Teen Company and perform in several productions, including a lead role in "Southwest Story."
"Matrix was a safe space where I would unleash my creativity and exchange ideas with others… I learned that it was OK to be myself and that my ideas were worth listening to," he says. "Matrix pretty much influenced me to be the person I am today, and for that I'm forever grateful."
Samer Ajluni, 49, who will be playing the role of Jos in "agua de luna," was already a theater veteran when he began working with Matrix in 2012. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained actor got his first taste of the company playing Dr. Miranda in "Death and the Maiden" and has fond memories of its opening night, describing the support he received from Matrix youth as "overwhelming."
"It reminded me of when I was in high school, discovering the drama class, and finally feeling like I belonged with a group of people," he says. "I think that is what Matrix provides to the community—a sense of belonging to all the people who feel like outsiders."
As for "agua de luna,
" Ajluni says working with Caridad Svich and others on the play has been “wonderful.” He’s looking forward to seeing how audience members respond to the world premiere.
Nethercott, too, is thrilled about the play’s upcoming debut. For her, "agua de luna" both exemplifies Matrix’s interest in community and social justice themes and holds potential to bring their vision of transformative theater to a wider stage.
"For it to be a community-based play of an internationally significant playwright is a big step forward for Matrix,” she says. “It's really exciting to be both rooted in place as we are and yet to start to have a little bit broader impact and become part of more national conversation about place and identity and power and voice. It’s important!”
Matrix Theatre Company's production of "agua de luna" premieres Feb. 26 and runs through March 20. Click here for more information about that production and other events related to Matrix Theatre's 25th anniversary celebration.
David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
Photos by Nick Hagen.