Theatre Review: Detroit ’67
Gordon Spencer / The Reader
Truth! Word! That’s what lives on the stage as SNAP Productions presents Dominque Morisseau’s Detroit ’67. Thanks to a totally believable and strong cast plus insightful direction by Noah Diaz, this play tells it like it is. Like it was.
Four black Detroit people are trying to make the best of their lives amid the seething racism of the time and place. They are Chelle and her younger brother Lank plus their friends Sly and Bunny. Their shaky status quo is made more uncertain when Lank and Sly rescue Caroline, a beat-up white woman, and bring her to Chelle and Lank’s home. Meanwhile, outside on the same streets, a riot starts to smolder. Then flames burst out followed by looting and shooting, the neighbors and the cops at war. Real history exploding that year with Lank and Sly caught up in the crossfire.
Chelle and Lank are not badly off, having recently inherited their family house. Trying to make ends meet, they operate an illegal after-hours joint in the basement. Sure, the threat of arrest is in the air but these black people try to exist within the confines of the roles they’ve got. No Black Power thing for them, despite a clenched black fist on a wall poster. They see it as honoring Joe Louis. Lank and Sly hope to open a real bar in a nearby property, but once the fires start, they fear that their hope will go up in smoke. Trying to get along with dreams deferred.
Caroline at first seems mysterious, unwilling to reveal much about herself; she alters the dynamics, especially as she remains in the house while she and Lank are drawn to each other. Actually she and her presence in this place don’t turn out to be that interesting. Overall she seems no more complex or distinctive than the other characters.
But they are all good people; there’s nothing wrong with that. What Morisseau has done is to make them a microcosm about innocent ghetto inhabitants caught in the social fabric of the time. That tells a lot.
Andre McGraw and Regina Palmer fill their roles with personality as Sly and Bunny. They perfectly convey sweet souls who believe better days will come. Doriette Jordan, with total sincerity, makes clear Chelle’s controlled seriousness. Portraying Lank, Raydell Cordell III comes across with completely convincing emotionality. And Jodi Vaccaro’s Caroline always stays believable.
Director Diaz adeptly keeps the pace alive and the tension palpable. By the way, his mother, Sharon, has come up with an amazing array of props to make this seem even more real, including an eight-track tape deck and tapes. The walls of this home shine with life.
This play won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. It’s part of Morisseau’s cycle The Detroit Projects. The second play, Paradise Blue, won the L. Arnold Weissberger Award. The third, Skeleton Crew, had a Barebones production at the Lark Play Development Center. Moreover her work includes The New York Times bestselling book “Chicken Soup for the African American Soul.”
Re the tapes, Morisseau calls for pop songs as a part of this life, such as those by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops.They imply a kind of happiness waiting out there somewhere, some time. If and when it’s safe to cross the street.