Oliver Pookram: African Renaissance Theater


Oliver Pookrum,
actor/producer, artistic director of the African Renaissance Theater of Detroit. After leaving Detroit to pursue a career in Los Angeles, where he appeared in numerous commercials, the actor returned to his home town to found the A.R.T., whose first production "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" opened in March at the Hastings Street Ballroom to critical acclaim. The production featured a number of Cass Tech alums, and was directed by Pookrum's high school theater instructor, Marilyn Green McCormick.


Because it's my home. It's my home and I love it: I love the people here and the people here need good art in their community. It's the same reason people give money to the theater, instead of Microsoft - because we need it! (Laughs)

Obviously if New York was my home, I might consider doing theater somewhere else, like Cincinnati or Detroit, because I think it's important to do theater where it's needed - not for any other reason.


I started doing theater when I was six years old at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, and once a year they do a school play. And from that I just started to really enjoy it. What I learned is that theater is a classroom, the grandest classroom, that there is, maybe, unless it's music.

From there I went to Cass Tech, which has an intensive acting program - that's where I got skills and exposure to theater. You know a lot of skill is about confidence. I walk into theaters all over the country and I feel comfortable and calm and able to learn from what I see there, which comes from my experiences at Talibah and Cass Tech. I guess I felt like I didn't have any other choice. It's what I do.

Theater is special because you have to have so many skills to do it, you have to know so many, and be able to do so many things to direct it, let alone produce it and start a theater company. It's everything in one - it's music, it's design, it's journalism in its own way, it's writing, dance. Theater encompasses all the arts - virtually everything else is missing something.


We really want to revolutionize the next generation of theater people in general - the perception, the expectations of what theater is. People always treat theater like - "Oh great, when are you gong to do film and television?" - as if film and television are a step up . But once you see a play like ("Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train), people clearly see that film and television - artistically - isn't a step up from theater.

Eminem, as talented as he is, is not going to get up stage and play ("Train's" main character) Angel Cruz. He just couldn't do it. But he can be a movie star. Of course, he makes a lot more doing "8 Mile" than he would doing "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," but the point is, he would never get cast in "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train." So theater is really the highest art form for actors - the highest art form for designers. You can shoot a scene in front of a courthouse in a film, but in a play you have to build the courthouse, you know? So in every way, it is the actor's art form, the designer's art form. And if people really understood that, they wouldn't ask why theater instead of film and television.

We're going to announce our (first full season) this summer. We're going to have a lot fun. We're going to have a press conference - I don't know who does that. We're going to have a show every spring, and a show in the fall, and a children's show in the middle, and in between we'll do play readings.


I feel it's on its way. We have great leadership with our mayor. We have great leadership with the city. Though you know they're cutting money - they're cutting the budget of the library, they're thinking about taking all the money away from the public library. But we have a lot of people with a lot of ideas.

And I really think a presence like ours in the city can do so many things. I really want people to come to our plays and say "You know what, I've been thinking about starting my business, and guess what, I'm going to do it." Because we want to inspire each other. So I think it's only going to get better. I don't very seriously think that it's going to get worse, you know? (laughs).

African Renaissance Theater of Detroit

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