From playwright Dominique Morisseau comes the second in a three-play cycle called “The Detroit Project.” Detroit ‘67, directed by Kamilah Forbes, gives an up close and personal look at life in Detroit during the civil rights era, more specifically, the riots and fires of 1967. The story centers around siblings Chelle and Lank. Detroit natives still recovering from the death of both parents, Chelle and Lank host after-hours parties to make some extra cash. The city is already in the midst of unrest, having heard from their close friend Sly that other late-night joints have gotten busted by the cops.
The audience enters the auditorium serenaded by classic Motown music from Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, and others. No curtain is drawn, so we are immediately immersed in this family’s world. It is the night before the first big party since the siblings took time to fix up the house.
…action immediately moved us forward, increasing the palpable tension.
Michelle Wilson perfectly embodies the complex woman that Chelle is. Not only is she grieving for her parents but she is putting her son through college and worrying about her brother, Lank. Wilson reveals all of Chelle’s sides through brilliant chemistry with the rest of the cast.
Lank is full of passion and you could feel it radiating from Amari Cheatom. His love for dreams and for people come out in the way he moves and talks, and how he moves when he talks. Cheatom comes into his own as the play progresses, making an especially moving portrayal of Lank’s raw emotions in this time of grief and outrage.
They seem to be the perfect team until Lank brings in a bruised white woman he found in the street. Caroline, played by Sarah Nealis, brings out the kids in Lank and Chelle, as they butt heads over helping her or putting her on her way to avoid trouble. Nealis conveys Caroline’s inner conflict and confusion without having to say anything.
Jessica Frances Dukes as Bunny steals the show with her vibrant costumes and personality that fills the whole theatre. She is a free spirit who brings smiles to everyone she meets. Her true shining moment comes when Chelle feels like her life is crashing down around her. With wisdom and tenderness, Bunny comes through as the steadfast friend.
The source of both laughter and pain, Brian Marable brings such vibrancy to the character of Sly. The soul of Detroit truly shines through him, always looking to have some fun, but being sincere and genuine at the most important of times. These qualities come out when Sly is with Chelle, and he pushes the boundaries of her “just get to tomorrow” mentality.
In this, the last play of the season, Center Stage is using Towson University’s mainstage while their own facilities are undergoing major renovations. Scenic designer Michael Carnahan utilizes the space to its full potential, presenting the Detroit house as a split level stage. The basement shows the wear and tear of family life, but projects an exuberance that can be felt as much as seen. An especially strong part of the design are the windows that create the backdrop. They are made up of many panes, and painted in a way that allows light to change what the audience sees in any given scene. Lighting designer Jen Schriever utilizes the features of the set to really encompass the feeling of being in Detroit where love and family thrive but also where unrest has settled in.
Projection designer Alex Basco Koch achieves exactly what projections should. They heighten the world of the play while being seamlessly incorporated into the play. Between scenes, footage of Detroit in 1967 is projected onto an upper level wall and the back windows. The action in the projections becomes progressively more intense until they begin to envelop the entire stage.
The only awkward part of the play is the transition from intermission into the second act. It is difficult to tell if the play has begun again or if the actors are getting in place still. But the action immediately moved us forward, increasing the palpable tension.
Love, heartbreak, and grief contribute to such an enthralling environment that much of the audience is in tears as the play concludes, leaving us to dwell on the bonds that love and friendship create.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up for strong language and violent situations.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Detroit ‘67 runs until May 8, 2016 at Towson University’s Center for the Arts. To purchase tickets call 410-332-0033 or click here. Also see their website for directions and parking details.