Barbara Busby: The “mother” and co-founder of the Detroit Rep dies, leaves incredible legacy
By Casaundra Freeman
DETROIT, MI–When Marcel Proust said, “Never meet the people you admire, you’ll be disappointed,” it’s clear that he’d never met Barbara Busby.
The fiercely passionate and unspeakably gifted actor, director, fiscal officer and co-founder of the Detroit Repertory Theatre passed away quietly on Tuesday evening August 16, 2022. The legacy she built when– as a theatre student at Wayne State University–together with Bruce Millan, Ruth and Mack Palmer, and T.O and Dee Andrus–she and her friends decided to combine their love of theatre with their quest for social justice and create the Detroit Repertory Theatre That mission remains the at the core of the Rep.
From its inception to the present day, the mission of the Detroit Rep was and is to use theatre to directly and unapologetically tackle racism by casting actors for roles regardless of their race and sometimes gender, unless it is germane to the play. This means that if you see a show at the Detroit Rep about a family, everyone in that family might be a different race unless the plot of the play requires otherwise. It may not seem transformative today when we have shows like Hamilton and Bridgerton, where color conscious casting is utilized, but in America in 1957–just two short years after Brown v Board of Education integrated public schools, 7 years before Congress prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and 10 years before interracial marriage was legalized in Loving v. Virginia–Barbara Busby envisioned a world where the race of a person was inconsequential to who they were and how they should be treated. She endeavored, year after year, and season after incredible season at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, to manifest that vision.
Barb would never want to accept the credit I’m giving her. For 65 years she served as the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s fiscal officer, ensuring that theatre survived decades of tests, from the 1967 rebellion, multiple recessions, the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy, a global pandemic and immeasurable other occurrences that have crippled other professional theatres. Most people however, only knew Barb as the oft cantankerous lady in the box office. With her unmovable standards of excellence and punctuality, shows at the Detroit Repertory Theatre are notorious to this day for going up on time, every time. Latecomers, even if by just a few minutes, would be notified they could go in at intermission or reschedule their tickets for another day.
Their displeasure about not being able to get in to see the show meant little. If she was feeling benevolent she might find a moment before intermission between scene changes to allow you to find a seat. She might. But it wouldn’t be without a scowl, a snarky comment, and a treasure trove of disapproving looks. To those who didn’t know her, it likely seemed rude. But to those who were taught and mentored by her, artists who graced the stage of the Detroit Repertory Theatre, you came to understand that the theatre–the craft of acting, the artists and technicians whose work make shows happen–must be respected. And showing up on time is the very least one can do to demonstrate that respect. Many didn’t see it that way, but she did, and that’s what made Barbara Busby simultaneously incredible and frightening. Never one to fear raising her raspy voice or expressing her disapproval, Barb could make the most self-assured person tremble. But invoking fear was never her aim. Creating a culture of respect for the arts was.
Barb had an impeccable memory. Without referring to a season brochure, she could recall a play, an actor, a playwright who graced the Rep’s stage only once. She, however, is the actor who has performed on the Rep’s stage the most, from the first shows the Rep produced as a children’s theatre in the late 50’s and early 60’s to her final performance in 2007 as Sister Aloyisus in “Doubt.” She acted and directed for decades at the Rep all the while tending to the massive overall financial health of the theatre. Her dedication to the theatre as a whole and the Detroit Rep in particular, is nearly unmatched.
The personal sacrifices she made to ensure that the Detroit Rep would continue to be a viable institution of great art are too many to count. But I’ll give you one example. A few years ago, well into her mid-eighties, between the Saturday matinee and evening show, a coward and a thief carjacked her outside her home. They unnecessarily struck her and proceeded to take the car with her beloved dog Josie in the back seat. She pled for and was granted Josie’s return. But when the thief took off, instead of going in the house and tasking someone else to take over the box office in her absence, she ,with the help of the new and equally dedicated Artistic Director Leah Smith, managed to be in the box office, seemingly unscathed before the first patron for the evening show arrived. Needless to say, the latecomers to that show did not get seated.
As a director, she crafted shows with a firm but gentle hand that allowed actors, new and seasoned alike, to explore the depths of their characters and push themselves artistically. As an actor, she created characters with skill and precision. She loved unabashedly and if you were fortunate to be in her good graces, she would move heaven and earth before she forgot to shower you with gifts for Christmas or your birthday. I don’t know if she ever understood that she was the gift. To be loved and guided by her, to have her believe in you was to feel, if only for the time it took to catch her glance and slight smile, invincible.
That is the stuff the people you admire should be made of. They should inspire others to be great. They should motivate others to work hard. They should demand from you your absolute best. I’m so very happy to say that I and so many others met and admired Barbara Busby, co-founder of the Detroit Repertory Theatre. She never disappointed me.
I wish I could tell Marcell Proust (when it came to her), how very wrong he was.
Busby directed more than 50 productions at the Rep and acted in more than 65 plays.
A celebration of her life and legacy is planned from 6-9 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 19 at the Detroit Rep. In lieu of flowers, according to the theatre, Busby requested that donations be made to the Detroit Rep or the Michigan Humane Society.
The Detroit Repertory Theatre is located at 13103 Woodrow Wilson St., Detroit; detroitreptheatre.com.