An African American Family Hosts a Mysterious Visitor in “Detroit ’67”; Princeton Summer Theater Succeeds with Dominique Morisseau’s Drama
“DETROIT ’67”: Performances are underway for “Detroit ’67.” Directed by Anike Sonuga, the play runs through July 31 at the Hamilton Murray Theater at Princeton University. Above, from left, are Sheleah Harris (Bunny) and Gabriel Generally (Lank). (Photo by Ethan Curtis Boll)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
The Detroit Riot of 1967, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or the 12th Street Riot, is the setting of Detroit ’67. Dominique Morisseau’s 2013 drama depicts an African American woman’s determination to provide security for her family; and her younger brother’s wish to start a new life, and blur racial boundaries. All of these goals are tested by the arrival of a mysterious white woman — and the riot.
Chelle, one of the protagonists, hosts underground parties to pay for her (unseen) son Julius’ college education. Lank, her younger brother, wants to open his own bar. This ties into the event that incited the Detroit Riot: a police raid of an unlicensed bar, in which all of the patrons were arrested.
Detroit ’67 is an installment of Morisseau’s three-play cycle The Detroit Project. Morriseau is a 2018 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow whose other credits include the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The music of Motown, notably the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” pervades Detroit ’67. Music is a “resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers.” Morisseau tells Broadway.com.
Princeton Summer Theater (PST) is concluding its 2022 season with Detroit ’67. Directed by Anike Sonuga, the production successfully conveys the colliding character arcs and rising tensions, which are exacerbated by historical events.
All of the onstage action takes place in Chelle and Lank’s basement. This allows Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set to be elaborately detailed. It is at once gritty and cozy, as black walls and a drawing of a fist are juxtaposed against a sofa, several lamps, and youthful sketches of family members. The basement is the venue for underground parties — heralded by lighting designer Alex Mannix’s display of colorful holiday bulbs — but it also can be seen as a bunker, from which Chelle attempts to avert any threats to her family’s safety and security.
Chelle, a widow (portrayed by Nyah Anderson), is preparing her basement for a party. 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 Lank to purchase supplies for the party.
Bunny, Chelle’s friend (Sheleah Harris), arrives to help with the preparations. She and Chelle discuss the inheritance left to Chelle and Lank by their parents. (The siblings live in the home in which they were raised.) Along with the income from the parties, Chelle wants the inheritance money to fund Julius’ education.
Lank (Gabriel Generally) enters the basement with his friend, Sly (Camron Chapple). Chelle is furious when she discovers that, instead of the items on her list (which includes new 45 rpm records), they have bought an 8-track tape player and tapes. Lank and Sly argue that the 8-track format sounds better than vinyl, and will replace it. (This is amusing since the former is out of mode, and the latter is enjoying a revival.)
Stereo equipment becomes a symbol of the conflict between change and the status quo; from their first scene together, Chelle and Lank adopt opposing viewpoints. Kyla Jeanne’s costumes reinforce this; Lank’s outfits often are flamboyant or colorful (in one scene he wears purple pants and a loose-fitting green shirt adorned with leaves, while Chelle’s clothes tend to be more conservative, though not somber).
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, unwilling to risk losing the money.
In the early 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 happens when Lank and Sly bring an unconscious white woman, Caroline (Hayley Krey), into the basement late at night.
Caroline has clearly been assaulted. Chelle is concerned about what could happen to her family if the authorities think that they attacked Caroline. Lank and Sly explain that she passed out in their car after they offered her a ride. Reluctantly, Chelle agrees to let Caroline sleep on the couch, and hires her to help with the party. But Chelle warns Lank, “Keep your friendliness to yourself.”
The day after the party, Chelle counts the money and pays Caroline, pleased with the way she has interacted with the guests. After Chelle leaves to run errands, Lank is surprised to discover that Caroline enjoys Motown. A conversation about their mutual passion for the music — as well as the family artwork that decorates the basement — brings them together, leading to a subtle but growing attraction.
Before anything else can happen, Chelle enters. Lank and Caroline hastily move away from each other, but Chelle glares at them, fully aware of what is happening. This moment would not work if the actors playing Caroline and Lank did not have sufficient chemistry; or if the staging lacked careful attention to timing. Fortunately, neither is the case here. The scene demonstrates Sonuga’s skill as a director, and the nuanced performances she elicits from the cast.
Later, Lank urgently informs Chelle that a bar is on fire. When she asks why he is so upset, he discloses that he and Sly have purchased the adjacent bar, which might now be destroyed. Chelle is incensed at him for risking their inheritance, over her objections. The earlier argument resurfaces, and this time it erupts.
Above the onstage action, conflict rages in the streets. Sound designer Xi (Zoey) Lin punctuates the later scenes with threatening rumbles that suggest the Army tanks that were deployed after Michigan’s governor declared a “state of insurrection.” One character is arrested, and another endangers his life. We also learn more about Caroline’s past — and the reason for her injuries — which has to do with her job as a waitress, and her relationship with a policeman.
This is the second production of Detroit ’67 that has been covered in these pages. In a review of McCarter Theatre’s 2018 presentation, I wrote: “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.” Seeing PST’s version reinforces that.
McCarter presented the play two years before George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent national conversation about racial justice — in particular, police brutality. Watching Detroit ’67 again two years later, its treatment of these issues gives it heightened resonance.
In a late scene, Chelle challenges Caroline’s assumption that she can understand — let alone relate to — Lank’s life experiences. “You might dream the same … but ‘til he have the same title to this world that you got, you and him ain’t gon’ never be the same!” she snaps. “And that ain’t blindness tell me that. That’s 20/20.” Now, hearing the speech — without seeing the slash between the numbers — is eerie; it reminds one of the events of 2020. This play reminds us how little has changed.
But this is not the only crucial aspect of Detroit ’67. “My intention with this show was never going to be to educate,” Sonuga writes in a program note. “You are brought into the intimate world … where Lank and Chelle grew up, evidence of their childhood decorating the space.”
Ultimately, the play’s focus is not on what happened in Detroit in July 1967. It is on the way those events affect a family — and the subsequent need for that family to rebuild their lives. PST’s Detroit ’67 succeeds because it makes that distinction clear.
“Detroit ’67” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through July 31. For tickets, show times, and more information, call (609) 359-2309 or visit princetonsummertheater.org/detroit-67.