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Detroit high school students turn their city’s tumult into a musical of hope

When Cass Tech High School’s Performing Arts teacher, Mrs. Marilyn G. McCormick, and her students heard that parts of Detroit’s beloved Heidelberg Project had been burned down, they created “The Experience Up From the Ashes,” an original musical inspired by the art installation’s message of hope. Video produced by Zosette Guir and shot by Andrew Templeton and Danny Gianino, for “Detroit Performs” on WTVS Detroit Public Television.

For years, the performing arts students at Detroit’s Cass Tech performed the traditional plays and musicals that high schools across the country stage. But last fall — under the leadership of their director, Marilyn McCormick — they were inspired to create their own.

The students had been outraged by a series of arson fires that had been set at the Heidelberg project, the outdoor art installation project that was begun nearly 30 years ago by artist Tyree Guyton in one of the most blighted sections of Detroit. Heidelberg has grown from a small political protest into a symbol of creativity, hope and rebirth.

“My students were so upset that arsonists would try to destroy such a positive institution in our community that they said they had to do something,” said McCormick.

The result was “Up From the Ashes,” a 90 minute production with original music, choreography and story about overcoming adversity.

McCormick took the students to meet Guyton and photograph the damage and reconstruction. They took photos and interviewed artists living in the Heidelberg houses.

The process of writing the musical was very emotional. Often, kids would cry during the rehearsals, as they talked about the trauma they have all experienced. But McCormick is quick to add that the production is an uplifting message about resilience.

“Ultimately, ‘Up from the Ashes’ is a story about more than the rebirth of Heidelberg, it’s about the rebirth of the entire city of Detroit.”

See more stories from Detroit Public TV on their website.

Local Beat is a weekly series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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