History, Entertainment and Detroit Youth…Oh My!

Last night I attended the second performance of Northern Lights – an original play, performed by the Mosaic Youth Theater, that tells the story, in words and music (featuring hits from a variety of Motown stars, the Rolling Stones, and the Who), of the historic walkout of students at Northern High School in Detroit.

In April 1966, more than 2,000 students at Detroit’s Northern High School, 98% of them African American, staged a walkout to protest the quality of the education they were getting – a story that has little been told and probably forgotten, but is still extremely relevant today. Their efforts led to the ouster of the principal, vice principal and a school policeman.

Director Courtney Burkett calls it “an inspirational story about young people taking responsibility for their education. It’s about getting voices heard.”

The show was written by Michael Dimwiddie, a New York playwright who grew up in Detroit, and recounts incidents related to the student walkout. The script continued to evolve as the director and students found newspaper accounts of the three-week walkout and interviewed former Northern students and others involved in the protest.

Chief among the interviewees was Dr. Karl Gregory, a Wayne State faculty member at the time, who served as principal of the Freedom School that operated briefly at a nearby church. I am proud to be able to call Karl a friend and colleague and was delighted to see him beaming up at the stage from the third row last night. He had been there for the opening as well the night before.

One of the actors who played the three student leaders was asked whether he thinks Detroit students in 2011 could be moved to take the kind of action a previous generation took in 1966? “It could happen again,” he says. “It probably should happen again.”

Forty-five years have passed and questions continue to swirl as to whether African American children are being short-changed by their education system.

The play is so relevant and the performers can’t be beat! My wife turned to me at the end and said “they could take this to Broadway.”

Well I totally agree. But before they do, I beg you to get your ticket and get to the DIA for next weekend’s final performance. You will tap your feet to the music, marvel at the poise and abilities of the performers, and learn an important chapter in Detroit history in the process.

Next year will mark the 20th Anniversary of Mosaic. 95% of all the children who have participated over this span have gone on to college. Rick Sperling…Metro Detroit owes you a whole lot of gratitude! Thank you once again for showing us the light!