Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ‘67” focuses on five days in the summer of 1967 when racial tensions between Black residents and the police force came to a head. It culminated with tanks in the street and 43 dead, with hundreds injured, thousands newly homeless, and over 7,000 arrests. Morisseau has brought the bald facts into gut-wrenching focus through this period’s effect on five people — a brother and sister, their two closest friends, and a young white woman who knows too much about the depth of police corruption and takes refuge with them for a few days.
Morrisseau has created gloriously human characters who refuse to be defined by one characteristic.
Chelle (Stori Ayers) and Lank (JaBen Early) are the brother and sister, and these two have a real chemistry. You almost find yourself double-checking the program to make sure they’re not related in real life. Chelle is the matriarch (she has a son away at school) and she is determined to preserve the house and a small inheritance she and Lank recently came into for his future.
She and Lank have opened a private, after-hours club in their basement and it has the latest technology — an eight-track player (I had forgotten how huge they were) — thanks to Lank and Sly. Chelle is content with that, but Lank has bigger dreams. He, along with best friend Sly (Greg Alvarez Reid), wants to buy a real bar and help with the economic revival of a diminishing Detroit due to white flight. He and Sly are determined to be part of a Black solution that will make a difference and help set them all on a path to sustainable self-sufficiency.
Unfortunately, the mostly white police force, civic leaders, and state governor see things differently. Things are going to happen that change all of their lives.
If the new technology wasn’t enough of a hard sell to Chelle, the young, beaten white woman Lank and Sly rescue off a street corner where she had been dumped is really tough. Caroline (a smoky Emily Kester), is not welcome. However, she offers to help Chelle and the group with the bar at night in exchange for just tips so she can get a bus/train ticket to get out of town. But her presence is more problematic. What’s more dangerous to Chelle and the others, than her knowledge of police misdeeds, is the depth of the attraction between her and Lank. To Morriseau’s credit, she doesn’t pretty up these realities and doesn’t go for a soft landing.
This is a wonderful cast. Chelle is controlled yet generous and when she dances a little with Sly (obviously there was something between them in the past), she’s downright sultry. As Lank, Early has passion, but it’s tempered (mostly) with a sense of reality. Reid gives us a Sly that is charming and boyish, but he has dreams and determination. Kester’s Caroline is also an enigma. She has an educated way of speaking and a formality to her, yet works at a strip club. There’s a vulnerability under the surface practicality.
Bunny’s (Valeka Jessica) character is less developed than the other three. She’s part of their life-long quartet, but unfortunately her character isn’t given much to do. She gets some of the best wisecracks, and Jessica can do a deadpan delivery with the best of them, but she remains something of an enigma. Yet Jessica gives us glimpses of a woman holding on to her independence and refusing to let fear rule her.
The scenic design by Milagros Ponce de Leon works quite well. The entire play is set in the basement of Chelle’s and Lank’s house, with just two high windows visible to bring light in from the outside. The furniture was close to Danish Modern which was becoming all the rage in the mid- to late-1960s and has the added bonus of being easy to move for dancing. It was a somewhat claustrophobic set. The stairs leading up to the main part of the house were always shadowed, but that very claustrophobia worked as a visual reminder of how constrained so many Black people’s lives were, given the realities of police and government policies and attitudes toward them. Befitting the after-hours club image, there were pictures and posters of Motown stars, R&B and blues musicians, and cultural icons such as Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, and other Black power figures. And of course, in pride of place at the makeshift DJ stand sat that bright, shiny (and huge) eight-track player.
This play also serves as a reminder that things haven’t changed all that much in the past 54 years. In 1967 or 2021, people still question other people’s humanity. Morisseau has created gloriously human characters who refuse to be defined by one characteristic.
Show Advisory: Adult language and themes.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes.
“Detroit ‘67,” presented by Signature Theatre, runs through August 29, 2021, and streams through Marquee TV. For more information, please click here.