Detroit ’67: A play about a place we know well
DETROIT–Last month I saw a musical, Sistas, set entirely in a family matriarch’s attic. Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 takes us to the opposite end of a home, another space filled with emotional memories and ripe for intense confrontations. This show, being produced at The Detroit Public Theatre, takes place entirely in a finished basement in a house once owned by the late parents of adult siblings Chelle and Lank.
This is the rec room where their daddy encouraged their younger selves to draw on the wall and “mark their territory.” It’s a place where Chelle used to dance around a support pole, pretending it was a boy she liked, and where Lank is now pushing her to update the sound system with one of those new 8-track players that make Marvin Gaye’s voice sound even more velvety.
Because this space not only houses the laundry and a spare couch, it’s also the site for an after-hours basement party they’re about to throw with Chelle’s vivacious friend Bunny and Lank’s charismatic buddy Sly. It’s harmless. They have fun and pick up a few bucks. But it risks troubles with the police, who are already seen in this neighborhood as more armed enemy than protectors; this neighborhood is near 12th Street and Clairmount in Detroit. And it’s late July, 1967.
Michelle Wilson’s Chelle already wears the losses she’s suffered – a husband dead too soon, and now her parents too. Her one joy in life is her son–although he’s now away at college and starting to make a life of his own. Jessica Frances Dukes as Bunny should get an award just for the way she makes her first entrance, all sass and sex just walking down the wooden stairs to a basement.
Sly/Sylvester, played by Brian Marable, is charming and cocky. He runs numbers, and even when he’s BSing he also speaks the truth. Chelle’s “baby” brother Lank, played by Amari Cheatom, is named after Langston Hughes. He’s the dreamer, the one who didn’t want to be tied down to a job in someone else’s factory. He never wanted to be attached too long to any woman either. But then he finds Caroline, played by Sarah Nealis, a white woman with troubles of her own.
Coming home late one night, Lank and Sly see her wandering down Chicago Boulevard, dazed and beaten. Lank cannot drive on without helping her. Sly accuses him of wanting to be “a Negro messiah.” They sneak her back to the house, where Chelle now lives, and where she vehemently protests this strange, possibly threatening intrusion into her life.
It’s the first sign that this basement–this familiar place–cannot stop time, cannot hold the outside world at bay forever. Over the next few days they throw their party, while Lank and Sly take it further, secretly buying a local bar from a white man.
Complex relationships play out between the brother and sister, between Lank and Caroline, and Sly and Chelle before the deaths and arrests and the firestorm and maelstrom of that awful hot summer hit home. And in the end we are both reminded of the tragedy of what-might-have-beens and the comfort that family can bring.
Between scenes of the show, Alex Basco Koch’s projections light up around the stage–footage of Detroit during those hot, horrible days. But there is a striking moment late in the play when the projections time- travel forward, and it is no longer 1967, but the 2010s: We see eerie dash-cam footage of Sandra Bland in the last moments before being taken to a Texas jail she would never leave, and horrific video of Walter Scott being shot from behind by a South Carolina cop after a routine traffic stop.
The more things change, the more they don’t.
When Detroit native Morisseau, who’s currently a story editor for Showtime’s “Shameless,” began writing this play a few years ago, she intended it as “a love song to my city,” a memory play about her family’s longtime hometown. But now, she said, “It’s no longer Detroit ’67. This play is “Ferguson, ’14. NCY ’14, Cleveland and Chicago ’15.”
Kamilah Forbes has helped this strong cast find the rhythms of the words and energetic motions of this place. Scenic designer Michael Carnahan (and other crew responsible for the set) turned this small space into a believably well-lived-in rec room. From the childish drawings on the wall, to the flaking-paint doors and even the poster for a Cassius Clay fight randomly stuck to the side of the primitive basement bar; it all screams that it is a real home.
Dede Ayite has captured the late 60s looks perfectly. Bunny’s first outfit is right out of a crazy ’67 disco. Jen Schriever’s lighting design easily conveys the ambience of a basement and the increasingly scary world outside, and Justin Ellington provided both the smooth sound design and additional music.
Detroit ’67 is part of a trilogy of plays Morriseau has set in her home city–the other two about 1940s Paradise Valley and contemporary auto workers. Let’s hope the Detroit Public Theatre – which has presented a strong inaugural season – or some other local stage will host the rest of the plays soon.