By Daniel Skora
Against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, playwright Dominique Morisseau has written an intriguing play about an African American family’s life in the city during one of its most turbulent times. Entitled simply “Detroit ’67”, the show is the current presentation of the Detroit Public Theatre.
Luxuries are few and far between in the predominantly black neighborhood around 12th Street and Clairmont. To supplement their income, Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and her brother Lank (Amari Cheatom) run an after-hours club in the basement of the family home they’ve recently inherited following the death of their mother. The club is a place where the locals can come after the licensed bars have closed to enjoy a drink or two, listen to the latest records, and dance and party until dawn. As part of their inheritance, Chelle and Lank have also come into a modest sum of money. Lank, however, has secretly used the money to initiate the purchase of a neighborhood bar along with his friend, the cocky but otherwise likable Sly (Brian Marable). When the practical Chelle, who wants to hang on to the money for security, discovers Lank’s intentions, friction arises between the two.
Fortunately, Chelle has a friend to bounce things off of. Bunny (Jessica Frances Dukes) is the proverbial free-living free-loving child of the sixties, and when she makes her grand entrance sashaying down the stairs in her skin-tight, halter-topped, bell-bottomed jumpsuit, it’s fairly obvious that whatever disasters the future might contain have temporarily been put on hold.
Although the disagreement between Chelle and Lank forecasts more serious things to come, the first act is a sprightly one. Much of the humor is the result of the effervescent Bunny, who likes men, music, and mischief and is not afraid to say so. However, when Lank comes home bringing an unexpected guest, things start to get serious.
Caroline (Sarah Nealis) is a young white woman who Lank has found wandering the streets near their neighborhood. Though bruised and battered, she refuses to tell what has happened to her. Lank convinces her to stay while she mends. This further increases the tension between Lank and Chelle, who believes that if word ever gets around that they’re harboring a white woman, the mostly white police will come down heavy on them. To make matters worse, with Lank beginning to take an interest in Caroline that goes beyond any concern for her injuries, and friction with Chelle building over his impending purchase of the bar, life on the streets begins to erupt with tensions that will forever change the neighborhood and the city.
“Detroit ‘67” is an important piece of theatre for the city. Besides recalling one of the most momentous events in the city’s history, there’s plenty of cultural history woven into the show. Empty cases of Vernor’s Ginger(y) Ale and Stroh’s Beer are used as containers and shelf supports. Lank brings home an 8-track player that he says plays better than the scratchy 45’s that Chelle has been playing, Bali Hai Tropical Fruit Flavored Wine becomes part of a discussion, and a Black Power fist is painted on one of the walls. Morisseau’s play obviously means to have a broader appeal than just a Detroit audience. That’s especially evident in the show’s frequent references to Motown. The music of Motown needs neither introduction nor explanation to the citizens of southeastern Michigan. We have all heard the recordings that made the label a music publishing phenomenon hundreds if not thousands of times and most everyone can name the song and the artist after hearing only the first bar or two of a Motown hit. With the out-of-towners obviously in mind, “Detroit ’67” goes out of its way to repeatedly name the singers when their records are being played.
Police are referred to as ‘pigs’, the derogatory term appearing to be well-earned because of the many incidents of brutality and intimidation of blacks reported in the play. Another derogatory word can be found in abundance. The majority of Americans is sensitive to the history of African Americans and shares with them their disgust with the use of the n-word. Though the word is often used by blacks with other blacks either as a term of endearment, amusement, or derision, the word is used here with such ease and frequency that it undercuts and cheapens the impact it should have on everyone regardless of ethnicity.
“Detroit ‘67” is directed by Kamilah Forbes. The realistic set is designed by Michael Carnahan and costumes are by Dede Ayite. The turmoil roiling on the streets outside is projected on two video displays on either side of the stage. Projection designer is Alex Basco Koch.
“Detroit ‘67” puts an exciting cap on a hugely entertaining inaugural season for the Detroit Public Theatre. The show runs through June 5th and tickets are available online at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, by phone at 313.576.5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office. Performances of Detroit Public Theatre take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.