By Daniel Skora
We mark our days by the calendar, and the days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years. Milestones and occasions of significant import are marked by anniversaries, allowing us to look back and reflect on events which have greatly affected our lives.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of what are commonly called the 1967 Detroit Riots. The events that happened during those five heated days in July have also been referred to as a civil disturbance, a public disorder, even a rebellion, either to call attention to the fact that they were fueled by longstanding injustices meted out to the city’s black populace by an overly aggressive police force, or to lessen the shame that might be attached to a historically proud and productive city.
But by any name, what happened when the normal everyday life of a major American city ground to a halt and was replaced by fear and mayhem, greatly affected the psyche of the city. True, the riots may have acquired a circus-like atmosphere when they were initially allowed to go unchecked, but it was a circus both deadly and destructive. Forty-three persons were confirmed to have lost their lives. Whole neighborhoods and numerous homes and businesses would be destroyed, never again to rise from their ashes.
Matrix Theatre is presenting “Dream Deferred : Detroit 1967”, a dramatic retelling of the riots based on authentic interviews recorded over a five year period immediately following the riots by Dr. Xavier Nicholas. Dr. Nicholas is credited as one of the creators of the show, along with Megan Buckley-Ball and David Wolber, who serves up yet another sterling directorial achievement. The stories of those interviewed are told by five actors who portray some forty distinct characters during the course of the 100 minute intermission-less show. What those characters had to say about where they were and what they saw or did during the riots represents a variety of experiences and a wide range of viewpoints.
Among them: Two police officers at ground zero tell of expressing their concerns to their precinct commander that the crowds at the blind pig where the skirmish began are getting out of hand. A young mother who gets caught up in the excitement of acquiring “free food” for her family throws in with the looters of a grocery store. A national guardsman stands alone at a street corner with a rifle that does little to assuage the fear that grips his mind. An elderly woman tells about how her neighbors moved the furniture out of her home to save it from a fast approaching fire. The owner of a bookstore that catered to blacks relates how he is initially spared from looters after some of the locals scrawled “Soul Brother” across the outside of his store, only to have his shop and all its contents destroyed later by the police.
Besides the stories of those who had subordinate parts to play in the sordid spectacle, the show also focuses on the big picture, the politicians and the newspaper headlines that may have shaped public opinion but did not always tell the whole truth. President Lyndon Johnson, Governor George Romney, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, freshman Congressman John Conyers, even future Detroit Police Chief Ike Mckinnon appear or are mentioned in vignettes that show that the effectiveness of those who were in charge varied greatly.
“Dream Deferred” is insightful and compelling theatre. All of the characters are played by five enormously talented local actors: Melissa Beckwith, Joshua Brown, Katie Fullerton, Jonathan Jones, and Mike Sandusky. Together, they recreate a variety of persons who relate their experiences during the riots: young and old, male and female, uniformed and civilian, those who observed and those who were actively engaged. The stories themselves are nicely arranged, first in the order of time progression, then as they alternate between the smaller and larger points of view. Director Wolber moves and animates his actors nicely while creating the occasional chorus to remind the audience that what took place that summer affected not only those individuals whose stories were given individual attention in the play, but the peoples of an entire city, an entire region, and the entire country.
“Dream Deferred: Detroit 1967” deserves to be seen. It’s an important historical document, an entertaining play that’s absolutely riveting from beginning to end, and a collection of personal stories that relate the human side of what has become lost to the bigger picture of the riots. You will not be disappointed.
Set Designer for the show is Elspeth Williams, who creates a chalk-motifed cityscape on the back wall of the staging area as if the entire town were being viewed through a smoke-filled haze. Tape laid down on the floor indicates streets where the rioting took place. Costume design is by Lauren Montgomery, sound and prop design by Megan Buckley-Ball. Lighting is by Alex Gray. Stage manager for the production is Sarah Drum and script consultant is Harvey Reed.
“Dream Deferred: Detroit 1967” has been extended to run through July 9th. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 1.313.967.0599 Mon-Fri 10a.m.-5p.m. or one hour before performances or going online at www.MatrixTheatre.org. The Matrix Theatre is located at 2730 Bagley St. in Detroit.