Theatre Review: Detroit '67

Race, gender and politics are tackled in the Dominique Morisseau play.

Posted: 03/13/2013 09:00 AM EDT
Detroit '67

From the first scene of a nearly two-hour ride of entertainment (sho' nuff!), Detroit '67 transports audiences into another time and space of American culture. Black power fists, Malcolm X paraphernalia and powerhouse Motown divas are the iconic symbols of Blackness. An especially bold move, having Black pride, during an era when the mainstream feared most everything about Black culture — well, except for the music.

Detroit '67 is set in 1960s Detroit, at the home — and after hours party spot — of “Chelle” and “Lank” Poindexter. After the famous Detroit riots, they are a brother and sister duo who are heading in unexpected directions both in love and life. The cast includes Michelle Wilson, Francois Battiste, Brandon J. Dirden, Samantha Soule and Tony-nominated actor De'Adre Aziza, who plays the scene-stealing character Bunny.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau wastes no time in reviving a period when polyester and Afros ruled but brilliantly underlining a common narrative for the decade: The Black man is down and constantly battling oppression. By his side, Black women must be strong matriarchs, dealing with misogyny and exclusion from many facets of society. And the children face choices their parents never had to navigate, making them virtually alone (like college or interracial marriage). Not to mention, the lack of access to resources in "ghettos."

Detroit '67 is a new spin on the downtrodden Black archetype, which is apparent in the raw depictions of the characters' journeys to “be somebody." Among many things, the play is a complex story about survival. We gain empathy while learning of their financial struggles, identifying with their hustler spirits and, at the same time, feel like we are a part of something big when characters make discoveries — both subtle and blatant.

The centerpiece of the production lies within the soulful music. It's a nod to the vintage jams that sound oh-so-right on the crackles of a record player (you know, the old thing with the needle and the big discs!) in the basement of your parents' home. Why would any story about Detroit not include the heavy influences of Motown? Like its Motor City identity, the music opened the door for a strong sense of pride for the many talented Black artists in and around the city. 

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah brings to life an often forgotten component of history: the story of the people by the people with a glimpse of, as the main character “Lank” puts it, a “Detroit on the ground with a lot of dividing lines.” The plot is continuously propelled by the need to be, whether a dreamer or a bystander, provoked by socio-political disruption; some make it and some don't. 

The questions in Detroit '67 are both big and small. Who started the riots? Was it about race? Will the people affected by the violence be able to pick up the pieces? Racial conflict is the primary culprit for the unrest. On the other hand, Morisseau wants us to dig deeper. She wants us to validate the lives of the revolutionaries who fought for civil rights and honor those who struggled to exist. Funny and informative, Detroit '67 tackles the turbulence of the time while finding a way, through all of the dilapidation, to recognize a defining generation.

Click here for more information on Detroit '67.

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(Photo: Joan Marcus/Public Theatre)

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