October 17, 2018

An African American Family Confronts the Events of “Detroit ‘67”; McCarter Theatre Presents Dominique Morisseau’s Inspiring Drama

“DETROIT ‘67”: Performances are underway for “Detroit ‘67.” Directed by Jade King Carroll, the play runs through October 28 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler, left) is upset by a series of risky choices made by her younger brother Lank (Johnny Ramey). Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The music of Motown underscores Detroit ’67, a drama whose action begins just before the Detroit Riot, or Great Rebellion. It focuses on an African American woman’s determination to provide security for her family; and her passionate younger brother’s wish to start a new life, and blur racial boundaries.

Detroit ‘67 is the first installment of a three-play cycle written by Dominique Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow who has been a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless. The production is directed by Jade King Carroll, who elicits layered performances from all of the actors.

“The Detroit I grew up in and understand was built on the backs of these small communities made up of real people. And I wanted to tell a story from that perspective,” Morisseau tells Northlight Theatre, which produced the play in 2013. She adds, “Music helps to give me a sense of the world within a play.”

Chelle, a widow, is setting up for an underground party she plans to give in her basement. She listens to Motown music as she works, good-naturedly scolding her record player when it skips. (Later in the show, another character compares her to a scratched record.) Chelle has sent her younger brother, Lank, to purchase supplies for the party.

Bunny, Chelle’s friend, arrives to help with the preparations. She and Chelle discuss the inheritance left to Chelle and Lank by their recently deceased father. The siblings have moved back into their parents’ house, and Chelle intends to give underground parties as a means of additional income, until her son Julius’ tuition at the Tuskegee Institute is paid.

Lank enters the basement with his friend, Sly. Chelle is furious when she discovers that, instead of the items on her shopping list, they have bought a large 8-track player and some tapes. Stereo equipment becomes a symbol of the conflict between change and the status quo. Soon after this, Lank disrupts Chelle’s world even more.

Lank and Sly hope to use the inheritance to purchase a nearby bar that is for sale, and plan to rename it “Sly and Lank’s Feel Good Shack.” Chelle refuses, despite Lank’s assertion that owning property in the community would make the police leave them alone. Lank sees the bar as a way of earning money through legitimate means; However, Chelle is unwilling to risk losing the inheritance.

For the first few scenes, the cast of characters is balanced; it consists of four African Americans, two of whom are women, the other two are men. One senses that this equilibrium must be disturbed, which it is when Lank and Sly bring an unconscious white woman into the basement, late at night.

When Chelle is awakened by the commotion, Lank and Sly explain that the woman — who clearly has been assaulted — was stumbling along Chicago Boulevard, and passed out in their car after they offered her a ride. Chelle bandages the woman’s wounds, and reluctantly agrees to let her sleep on the couch.

The next morning, she awakens, disoriented. Lank brings her breakfast and asks her questions, but she reveals nothing except for the fact that her name is Caroline. Chelle offers to call Caroline’s family, but she declines. Lank suggests that Caroline be hired to help with the party. Chelle agrees but warns Lank, “Keep your friendliness to yourself.”

The evening of the party, Lank plays music on the 8-track. Caroline watches as Lank does a risqué dance with Bunny, and Sly persuades Chelle to dance. This sensual scene has some of Dede M. Ayite’s most alluring costumes, including a chic brown suit for Sly. All of Ayite’s dresses for Bunny are opulent. Chelle’s outfits are casual but less flashy, consistent with her aimiable but more cautious character.

Chelle counts the money the next morning and pays Caroline, pleased with the way she interacted with the guests. After Chelle leaves to run errands, Lank is surprised to discover that he and Caroline both enjoy Motown.

Thematically the scene is reminiscent of Intimate Apparel, which Jade King Carroll also directed at McCarter. In that play, a piece of silk momentarily connects two characters who, for cultural reasons, cannot be together. Also, music enables and symbolizes forbidden intimacy in a recent adaptation of The Age of Innocence, which opened McCarter’s current season.

Before Chelle returns and disapprovingly interrupts the growing intimacy between them, Lank explains to Caroline the personal meaning of the artwork — including a large fist, and a young girl’s face — that the family members have drawn on the walls.

All of the play’s onstage action takes place in the basement. This allows the detailed set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, to be elaborate. It is at once militant and cozy, as the drawing of the fist, and photographs of kickboxers, are juxtaposed with height markings and assorted furniture. The basement is a bunker, from which Chelle is determined to keep disturbances at bay.

Later, Lank urgently informs Chelle that a bar is on fire. When Chelle asks why he is so upset, he discloses that he and Sly have purchased the adjacent bar, which might now be destroyed. Lank runs out, with Chelle incensed at him for risking their inheritance over her objections.

The next morning, Sly tells Chelle and Bunny that when he and Lank inspected their bar, policemen harassed them; Lank has been arrested after standing up to them. Chelle and Sly hurry to bail Lank out of Jail, and Caroline abruptly leaves after Bunny tells her what has happened.

Johnny Ramey captures Lank’s combination of kindness and frustrated intensity. As Chelle, Myxolydia Tyler matches this with consistent energy.

Bunny is flamboyantly portrayed by Nyahale Allie. Will Cobbs infuses Sly with debonair earnestness. In her performance as Caroline, Ginna Le Vine deftly conveys the character’s interest in Lank, while keeping her motives ambiguous.

In making an underground party the focal point of the play’s early scenes, Morisseau mirrors the incident that precipitated the riot. The police raided an unlicensed bar, and arrested all of the patrons. Residents protested; several of them started fires.

“The protests and violence spread to other areas of the city as police lost control of the situation,” notes Britannica.com. Governor George Romney deployed the National Guard, and President Johnson sent Army troops to the city.

Part of what makes the script successful is that it heightens suspense by denying the audience the benefit of hindsight. We are given no hint of what is happening outside the basement, except through the characters’ points of view.

Under Jade King Carroll’s astute direction, the production supports this by eschewing the use of video media, such as captions or historical footage. Only Nicole Pearce’s abstract lighting, and the eerie sound design by Karin Graybash, offer the audience any sensory clues as to offstage events.

The steady, rousing music of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” provides a marked contrast. Despite the devastation that we realize is transpiring offstage, Detroit ‘67 is uplifting because of its emphasis on the concept of family — as well as the characters’ ability to set racial tensions aside, despite their apprehension or frustration, and show kindness to an outsider.