Encore Michigan

‘Dream Deferred’ Explores Detroit’s Explosive Summer of ’67

Review June 03, 2017 Patrice Nolan

DETROIT – There have been countless reports, books, documentaries and even stage productions probing the violence that ripped Detroit apart one hot summer 50 years ago. But Dream Deferred: Detroit, 1967 offers a unique, authentic perspective by relying on the first-hand reports of people who watched it unfold. This production, which closes the Matrix Theatre Company’s mainstage season, is based on actual interviews recorded by Dr. Xavier Nicholas following that summer’s uprising.

The title of the play, of course, refers to the famous Langston Hughes poem that begins, “what happens to a dream deferred?” Given the perspective of 50 years, the question is no longer rhetorical. When a dream is deferred too long – when the unrelenting pressure of institutionalized racism builds and builds – it explodes.

Dream Deferred is riveting, honest, and respectful of the material. Unlike some politically charged shows, there is no exploitation of sensational subject matter, no preaching, no blatant shaming. Instead, we have the verbatim accounts of about 40 eyewitnesses, portrayed by five actors, who tell their version of the events of July 23-27, 1967.

The script for this show was a collaborative effort, created by Matrix’s Artistic Director, Megan Buckley-Ball, director David Wolber, and the original interviewer and literature professor (retired), Dr. Xavier Nicholas. The company also worked with script consultant and social psychologist Dr. Harvey Reed to fine tune the characterizations and narratives.

The result is a patchwork of testimonials that are arranged to reveal the bigger picture. We hear from politicians (including Gov. George Romney), prominent ministers, black militants and business leaders. Looters talk about the carnival atmosphere as the mob grabs for “free” food and merchandise. Doctors and nurses describe the horrific nature of the wounds they are treating, primarily inflicted by the police and National Guardsmen. A professional military officer explains with disgust the tragic effects of sending frightened young reservists into a situation for which they have had zero training. A man who stopped for gas on his way to work describes being terrorized by police and locked in a basement with 80 other men for three days without access to food or facilities. A white woman explains the threats her family received after taking in a black family whose house was burned down. A black police officer (we can infer by his remarks it’s Deputy Mayor Ike McKinnon) is shot at by white cops who resent him and relish the chance to literally get away with murder. There are many who witnessed bloodshed and murder firsthand, perpetrated by those sent to restore the peace. And there are simple acts of kindness that speak to the underlying humanity that survives despite the madness.

The five actors who bring these stories to life do an uncanny job of changing the pitch of their voices, accents, mannerisms, and body language to create distinct, viable characters. The cast features Melissa Beckwith, Joshua R. Brown, Kate Fullerton, Jonathan Jones and Mike Sandusky. Theirs is a serious task, but they bring evident joy to the effort and even moments of self-effacing humor surface across the somber narrative.

The scenic design by Elspeth Williams uses white-on-black illustrations to create a chalkboard mural of Detroit that serves as the backdrop. As characters describe the city engulfed in flames, one of the actors erases the chalk drawings of the buildings and claps the chalk erasers to create puffs of smoke. Even the floor of the performance space contributes to the storytelling – it is a precisely diagramed street map of the city. Although the characters don’t explicitly identify themselves, costumes designed by Lauren Montgomery help us sort out the police and military figures, the businessmen, the citizens, the doctors and nurses, and give us clues as to where they fit in the context of the story. The production also features dramatic lighting designed by Alex Gay, props and clever sound design by Megan Buckley-Ball, and stage management by Sarah Drum.

Dream Deferred is both instructional and mesmerizing. It’s a must-see show for anyone who cares about Detroit and its history. Although the subject matter is not appropriate for young children, mature teens and sentient adults cannot help but benefit from experiencing this production and the integrity with which it presents a dark chapter in our past. The perspectives are diverse, but the lesson is clear. When we treat groups of people as “others” – when we encourage anger, hate and resentment – we fuel social combustion. When we listen to each other’s stories, as we do in this compelling Matrix Theatre production, we are reminded of how much we have in common. That’s something we can all take to heart.

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Week of 6/5/2023

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