Fort Worth — How does a person navigate the world when the personal and the political can’t be separated? When the color of one’s skin must factor into every choice, every relationship, every decision? And how does it affect those around you when a person of color tries to transgress society’s boundaries? Dominique Morisseau’s award-winning Detroit ’67, originally workshopped at The Public Theatre as the first of her three play cycle “The Detroit Projects,” examines these larger questions through the intimate lens of one family’s experiences during the Detroit race riots in 1967.
A little background on the Detroit riots: In 1967—a year of already unprecedented racial violence—the Detroit police, who were routinely accused of brutality towards the Detroit African-American community, raided an underground bar early in the morning of July 23 and arrested everyone present, most if not all of whom were black (such underground bars developed amongst the African-American community due primarily to discrimination in Detroit’s white-owned bars and clubs). Reports vary, but some claim that a bottle thrown at a policeman sparked off the violence that followed. Over the following five days the city was engulfed in widespread looting, frequent and violent confrontations between African American citizens and the police, and largescale property destruction. On July 24, Michigan’s Governor George Romney gave the order for the National Guard to quell the riots, with support from the military authorized by President Lyndon Johnson, and by the July 27 it was all over, leaving 43 dead, more than 1,000 injured, more than 7,000 arrested, and with more than 2,300 buildings destroyed.
In Morisseau’s play, being staged at Jubilee Theatre, siblings Chelle (JuNene K) and Lank (Bryan Pitts) run their own after-hours bar in the basement of their Detroit home. Widowed older sister Chelle wants to use their parents’ inheritance to pay off their mortgage, put her son through college, and hold on to what their parents scraped to build for them; her old 45 player is good enough to play her beloved Four Tops and The Temptations records, and she won’t touch the state-of-the-art 8 track player her baby brother Lank brings home for the bar. Lank (short for Langston Hughes Poindexter, with big shoes to fill from birth) dreams of partnering with his best friend Sly (Orlando Valentino) to buy a local bar and go legit, to pioneer a black-owned business in a black neighborhood. But just as police violence begins to spark rioting in their neighborhood (and beyond), Lank impulsively decides to play Good Samaritan and bring home an injured, unconscious white woman (Katreeva Philips) he saw pass out in the streets. The woman, Caroline, is clearly hiding something, and hiding from something, and her presence in Lank and Chelle’s home serves to ramp up the tension between the siblings and threaten both their plans for the future.
Under the direction of the returning Jiles R. King III, the cast, rounded out by Chelle’s loud, out-on-the-prowl friend Bunny (Cherish Robinson), charms. However, at the performance reviewed (Feb. 3), energy lagged, especially in the show’s first half; in light of the violence surrounding (and at times finding) the characters, the stakes didn’t always feel as high as they needed to be.
JuNene K brings out the layers of sweetness in Chelle, but at times the character’s sharpness was a trifle muted. Her best scenes are in the show’s second half, in which Chelle finally gives in to Sly’s constant, but in the end sincere, flirtation and lets herself dream about the future, if only for a moment. The culmination of their relationship in the play’s final moments is played with heartbreaking sincerity by K and leaves the audience mourning her lost chances.
A striking presence onstage, Bryan Potts’ Lank does well with a character who wears many masks, with his family, friends, and even himself. His scenes with the enigmatic Caroline bring out the most interesting facets in the character, as his wariness turns to fascination, and perhaps more. Katreeva Philips, whose long limbs and talent for physical comedy as well as her swinging ’60s costumes evoked no lesser comic legend than the great Carol Burnett, shares strong chemistry with Pitts’ Lank, and Philips does well for the most part in navigating a character whose personality changes from moment to moment. The relationship between the two is key to unlocking not only Lank’s dreams of, in a seeming dichotomy, striving to realize and support black entrepreneurship and success, but also of transcending beyond racial boundaries; at one point he laments, “Why can’t I do what I do without it being about something else?!” It also forces Chelle to confront her own internalized prejudices and the resulting confrontations are some of the play’s best moments.
Robinson (Bunny) and Valentino (Sly) make the most of their roles as satellites in orbit around the Poindexter siblings; Robinson especially deserves credit for finding depth in a character who, in lesser hands, could be little more than a stereotype.
The costuming and set design work hand-in-hand (not surprising as both were designed by a single person, SMU graduate student Amy Poe in her Jubilee debut) to evoke not only the ’60s as a whole but the dirt and grit—as well as the vibrancy and spirit—of this Detroit neighborhood. And the sound design by David Lanza deserves credit for not only the steady stream of Motown and R&B essential to the mood of the show, but also for the ominous background noise of a city at war with itself as the rioting escalates.
Depicting a tumultuous time in American history, Detroit ’67 has, perhaps, only become more relevant since its debut in 2013. Its characters live and love to the sweet sounds of The Four Tops, Martha Wells, Marvin Gaye, and the omnipresent “Temps.” But they must at last make way to the blast of Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today”: “Will I live tomorrow?/Well I just can't say/But I know for sure/I don't live today.”