Playwright retells Detroit’s story

Each Thursday we feature news for and about alumni, such a big part of the life of Liggett.

I received a lovely phone call earlier this week from Mercilee “Lee” Jenkins ’64. A playwright, Lee had some exciting news to share about her newest work, and I jumped at the chance to feature it for this week’s blog post. Lee happily agreed, and sent along some wonderful information!

Lee is a celebrated playwright, poet and performing artist in addition to being a professor of Communication & Performance Studies at San Francisco State University. She has many impressive credits including the plays, Dangerous Beauty: Love in the Age of Earthquakes and AIDS, A Credit to Her Country, The Two-Bit Tango, Menopause and Desire or 452 Positions on Love, and She Rises Like a Building to the Sky, which was recently published. She also co-edited an anthology of essays and performance pieces entitled Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life.  She has received grants for her playwriting from the Horizons Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the California Institute for Contemporary Art as well as Distinguished Performance Awards from the National Communication Association and the Western States Communication Association.

She sounds busy, right? Well, Lee hasn’t stopped there, up next her work is being

Click here and print the show’s flyer.

performed here in Michigan. Lee has written a play called Spirit of Detroit, and it’s being performed at University of Michigan on March 23-24 in the UMMA auditorium at 7 p.m.

The play is being performed by a group of students as part of a project called the Understanding Race Project, part of U of M’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences themed semester for Winter 2013. The Understanding Race Project aims to explore the idea of race as a social construct. Check it out here.

Lee’s work is a perfect fit for the project. Spirit of Detroit tells the story of two people, a black man and a white woman, who return to Detroit after a long absence to find a very different city. They grew up in different worlds only three blocks from each other, survived the 1967 riot together, and meet again 40 years later.  As they revisit their past, they come to a new understanding of their relationship to each other and the future of the city.

Lee says she was inspired to write the play after her own trip to Detroit in 2004 after a 14-year absence. The play began as a one woman show about Lee’s own upbringing in Detroit. As the play developed, she felt it needed a second voice. “I wanted to find an African American man who had grown up around the same time I did in the same area who was willing to tell some of his stories.  Fortunately, I found Thomas Phinnessee, who generously shared his experiences, which became the basis for the character, Anthony.  The fact that he is an artist made possible the evolution of this play into what it has become and gives me hope for the city of Detroit where art and music manage to thrive against all the odds or maybe because of them.”

In addition to this run of the play, Spirit of Detroit was selected for the New Plays Festival in Detroit and the Theatre Bay Area Playwrights Showcase and has received staged readings in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Chicago. In June, the play will receive a staged reading at the Arts Club in New York as well.

A big thanks to Lee for sharing this exciting news! We are always looking to share stories and news from our alumni. If you have a story to share send it to me at or call the Alumni Office at 313.884.4444, Ext. 415.

Savannah Lee
Alumni Relations Manager