CPP professor uses Detroit liquor stores to capture city’s overlooked reality

By Jose Herrera, March 16, 2021

Cal Poly Pomona Liberal Studies Assistant Professor Maya Stovall emitted her Detroit roots in her book titled, “Liquor Store Theatre,” released last year. Exploring the social, cultural and political aspects of her hometown, the book captures the overlooked reality of Detroit.

The book, published by the Duke University Press, is based on her six-year-long video project produced during her time living at McDougall-Hunt from 2012 to 2018.

The video series, also titled “Liquor Store Theatre,” shows Stovall performing ballet-embedded choreography in front of numerous liquor stores around the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood in Detroit. The production includes 30 videos showcasing dances along with interviews she conducted with neighborhood bystanders, capturing conversations about the social, cultural and political forces surrounding the community.

Using dance movements to engage in these conversations put Stovall in a vulnerable position by allowing openness while challenging the traditional role of a researcher as she expressed herself in a “conceptual” form of art.

“The purpose was to create this open-ended environment and bizarre point of departure to get people thinking,” Stovall said. “I would never go up to anyone and asked them to be interviewed. People would come up to me and get curious.”

Following the theme of the videos, the “Liquor Store Theatre” book takes readers on the behind-the-scenes journey of the filming process. It also explores the historical framework of the project as well as the relationships created with interviewees during the process.

Stovall spoke to over 200 community members while visiting the neighborhood to dance by the liquor stores. Out of the 200, she built strong relationships with four people that offered unique perspectives about their lives in the neighborhood. Some of the topics discussed included economics, sexuality and access to public commons.

“What these four people represent is the tip of the iceberg of life in Detroit. They intersect economically, politically, historically and culturally,” Stovall said. “These people demonstrate interactions with this broad historical framework that is particular. Their stories allow you to see how they interact with these economic, political and cultural forces at a micro level.”

Stovall’s project breaks more than ice during a conversation with strangers of the community. The project uncovers a blanket of perspective about the life in McDougall-Hunt and what the residents are experiencing. Interviews that are included in the book and are also captured in the video edition of the project, revealing the racism embedded in history and politics that do not receive enough attention.

Cal Poly Pomona Liberal Studies Assistant Professor Maya Stovall’s video and book productions titled, ““Liquor Store Theatre,” set place in various liquor stores to explore social and political issues in Detroit. (Courtesy of Maya Stovall)

Stovall’s decision to choose liquor stores as the setting for her project was due to the fact that there are eight liquor stores in the small neighborhood of McDougall-Hunt.

“The median income of this neighborhood is around $15,000 a year. Meanwhile, the median income of the liquor stores average to about half a million dollars a year,” Stovall said. “It’s an equity issue for people who are earning around $15,000 a year supporting the businesses that earn over half a million a year.”

When producing her projects, Stovall recalled her alma mater Cass Technical High School and its deep historic scars which are embedded in its name. The school was named after former Secretary of War Lewis Cass who was one of the “enforcers” of the Indian Removal Act. Cass played a role in policies that resulted in thousands of indigenous people being killed and removed from their land. Cass was also directly involved with slavery and was ultimately responsible for the death of many Indigenous and African American people.

Stovall refers to this dark history as a “glimpse of the complexity” that she studies and is interested in.

“Detroit is complicated, so it makes it a great city to begin thinking about other cities around the world, which is part of the work I do now,” Stovall said. “I think about what’s happening in other cities economically, politically and broadly.”

Stovall credits her upbringing and surroundings in her hometown in Detroit for being major influences in her passion for art, activism and scholarly research. From a young age, Stovall recalls spending time in art museums and with her parents who were “intellectual thinkers.”

Stovall is now an assistant professor in CPP’s Liberal Studies Department since 2018 and continuously conducts personal studies — with some of her recent artwork featured in the New York Times and other art publications.

“There has always been a connection to the Southern California region from the circles of artists I worked with in Detroit,” Stovall said. “My position now at Cal Poly Pomona is ideal because my work is inner-disciplinary where I can use different academic fields to do my research studies and also teach.”

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