As tears of joy well in her eyes, Detroit playwright and Wayne State University alumna Timberly Robinson glances back at the arc of her life, sniffles and smiles.
Once a cash-strapped student assistant at WSU in the 1990s, Robinson used to spend long hours working for the American Association of University Professors, sometimes even choosing to work weekends to straighten up the organization’s offices to earn extra cash. Robinson said that she spent many of those days gazing out of the window of an apartment building where AAUP was housed and at the nearby Community Arts Center, stoking creative ambitions that would take her decades to realize.
“I remember I’d just look over there, across the mall and just wonder what was going on,” said Robinson, who earned her bachelor’s in biology and her doctorate in education from Wayne State and began her career handling qualitative and quantitative research at the School of Medicine. “I had always wanted to write. For about 30 years, I wanted to do a play. It had just been inside of me. You do certain things for a living — but then there’s that passion that, if you don’t address it, is going to come out one way or the other.”
After three decades of harboring ambitions that she didn’t have the time or nerve to cultivate, Robinson — who’d written occasional freelance articles — decided in 2020 to go all in on her dreams. She started a production company, aptly named Luvinwhatido Productions, and began banging out her first script. Now, that first play, 4 Daughters Minus 1, 2000 A.D., is set to open in Detroit Sept. 16 at the Community Arts Center Auditorium at WSU.
Set inside a modern-day theatre, the play brings to life four major female figures from the Bible — Ruth, Queen Bathsheba, Elizabeth and the Woman at the Well — who are enjoying a royal literary function when they are suddenly confronted by the notorious Biblical figure Jezebel. The ensuing conversations focuses on an array of traditional and contemporary women’s issues — from social and economic empowerment to childbearing and marriage — that sit at the heart of 4 Daughters.
With tears falling, Robinson reflected on what it means to return to the campus where she’s spent nearly one-third of her life, as a student and as a researcher, but now in a role she once could only dream of.
“I believe I’ve come full-circle,” Robinson said. “I’ve heard Michael Jordan say the only difference between him and other guys that he can remember who would play on the streets is that he just had opportunity and he stuck with it — and so do I. It’s like the dream has come true. That’s the only way I can explain it. God is faithful. He puts these desires in us, and you don’t know how it’s going to come through, but if you just don’t give up …”
She admits that the anxieties that had stopped her from pursuing her dreams for so long weren’t easy to shake, especially when she thought about how she would finance her work.
“Anytime you start a production company, any type of small business, it’s funding. Where do I get the funding?That’s when I decided that before you can ask anyone else to invest in you, you have to be willing to invest in yourself, so I took my savings and said, ‘It’s going into this. We’re going to make this happen.’ I was ready to put all my eggs in one basket.”
Robinson said she spent between $16,000 and $18,000 to get the play onto a small stage at Marygrove College last year. Despite the cost, though, she said she was thrilled just to see her work performed in front of an audience.
But that thrill pales in comparison to her excitement over bringing 4 Daughters home to WSU; in fact, Robinson recently visited campus to peek into the building to see the stage where her long-stifled passion will bloom to life.
“I was like, ‘Can I just get inside the building?’ And I don't know if I was supposed to be in there because someone came around to see what I was up to. And I just asked, ‘Is the stage open?’” she said. “I just wanted to look at it, knowing that it’s been over 30 years and finally this play is going to come to life — that I get the opportunity to be here. To me, it’s my Broadway. I know, for some people, they have to wait until Broadway to feel like that. Nope. Mine is here at Wayne State University.”
And of course, Robinson has high hopes for the play. She noted that much of her confidence lies not just with her material but also with a talented and diverse cast that hails from metro Detroit.
A mix of seasoned actors and inexperienced newcomers, the cast is highlighted by Detroit native Kristin Clarke, who plays the role of Jezebel. Clarke, who boasts a background in TV, theatre and film, is also the great-grandniece of iconic entertainer Dorothy Dandridge. Robinson said she met Clarke during auditions for the role of Jezebel, which Robinson had to recast after the original actress landed a part in another play. She had no idea about Clarke’s notable family ties until after the audition, where she paired Clarke with an actor who was seeking to earn the role of Father Yahweh, divine father of the four daughters.
“Their chemistry was electrifying,” Robinson said, “so when I went to call her to say she had been chosen, I just kind of played with her a little bit. I said, ‘You know, Kristin, I forgot. I didn’t find out about you.’ So, she starts telling me this story. And then I hear, ‘Dorothy Dandridge,’ and she keeps going. I was like, ‘What? Wait, wait. Slow down. What did you say?’ I'm glad I didn’t know her beforehand because I might’ve been biased. I’m glad it happened like that because Kristin knows that she got it based being outstanding for the role.”
Robinson has also been able to tap talent from Wayne State. Last year, her production company brought in an intern who was a student at the Mike Ilitch School of Business to help with marketing. Opening doors for younger people — particularly young Detroiters — is part of Robinson’s mission.
“That’s the beauty of having the production company: I can bring in interns and give people a chance,” she said. “What’s really important to me is that, with my production company, yes, it gives new actors the opportunity to work with professional actors — but it also provides opportunity behind the scenes.”
And no one, Robinson said, can discount the power of lessons learned through experience.
“They say experience brings patience, and that’s where I am. I hear that inner voice saying, ‘Tim, it’s going to be all right. You’re going to get that outcome you’re looking for — with a lot of hard work, too.’”
Even through the haze of tears, Robinson can see her creative future clearer than ever as she draws closer to her dream. No longer gazing through windows at the Community Arts Building, she is ready to walk through the front door.
4 Daughters Minus 1, 2000 A.D. will be presented at the Community Arts Building Auditorium Sept. 16 at 5 p.m. General admission tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite for $25 and $40. Tickets purchased at the door are $45.