Two young black men stumble upon an expensively dressed but badly beaten young white woman in the ghetto. What do they do? If it’s Detroit in 1967, you certainly can’t involve yourself with the hospital or the police. Do you just look the other way? But Lank and Sly are basically good people, so they take her to the dismal basement of Lank’s house, which doubles as a “blind pig,” an illegal impromptu gathering place/bar.
From this beginning, Dominique Morisseau weaves a compelling story of family, racism, and violence that paints an invigorating picture of a very specific time and place in our disgraceful history. Her play, Detroit ’67, was recently presented at the Public Theater in New York, and is now making its area debut at The Stagecrafters Theater in Chestnut Hill.
Morisseau’s story takes place in that dingy basement room, which scene designer Scott Killinger has excellently painted “latrine green.” At the top of the set are standard basement windows, which offer the only link to the outside world. Gilbert Todd’s harshly effective lighting and Patrick Martin’s skillful sound design (traffic, sirens, elevated trains, tanks) are used to illustrate the unseen race riots taking place in the streets above.
Detroit ’67 is a well-told family story. With an obvious nod to Lorraine Hansberry, a sister and brother argue with regard to spending a newly acquired legacy. Chelle, the practical older sister, wants to keep the money for her son’s college education. Lank (short for Langston) wants to invest in a legitimate bar that will bring them respectability and help the community. But this is Detroit, rife with racism, police brutality, segregation and political corruption. His plan is a very risky proposition.
Nancy Marie gives Chelle, the needed tough exterior that it takes to get on in such a world, while Kash Goins endows the lovable Lank with the little brother brashness, underscored with a basic decency. Chelle is understandably upset when Lank seems to take an interest in Caroline, the white girl. Effie Kammer is shrewdly enigmatic about her identity and past in the role.
Bunny (Tiffany Barrett), a good-time girl who proudly sports some of the hideous fashions of the era (courtesy of designer Susan Flagg), provides excellent comic relief. Barrett has a good turn with a funny line, and her preening brother Sly (Rodd Deon) is a breath of fresh air in the drab ghetto, especially in a tender scene with the overworked and lonely Chelle.
Jane Toczek’s specific direction doesn’t miss a beat, and also enhances the poetic talent of young playwright Morisseau, whose long speeches are sometimes reminiscent of Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. This is a writer to watch and promote, even if the thematic speechifying is overdone in the second act.
Most of all there is the music. Freely sprinkled throughout are The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and others. If you remember these songs as pleasant tunes about love, Morisseau demonstrates how the music became the life and soul of these people, a main impetus that helps them endure. These songs make their lives, if only for a moment, bearable, even beautiful. A memorable bonding scene between Lank and Caroline occurs when he is stunned that she has a deep knowledge and affection for “Negro music.”
The Stagecrafters has received a grant from Staples to bring the play to high school students, who like the author, were not around when the events occurred. Hopefully, other local theaters will take note of this area premiere and bring Detroit ’67 to their audiences.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
Detroit ’67 plays through Sunday, April 23, 2017 at The Stagecrafters Theater – 8130 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 247-9913 or purchase them online.