Dallas — Sometimes the predictable, well-made play can feel as comfy as your favorite pair of loafers, even as some of its themes induce discomfort. That’s the takeaway in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, now having its area premiere at African American Repertory Theater.
Set against a violent backdrop—the 12th Street riot of 1967 starts just at the end of Act I—and with plenty of precisely placed conflict, it’s easy to map out where this play is going well before each turn approaches. But that doesn’t make you root for these characters any less, nor does it lessen the contemporary relevance. It’s impossible not to think of the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, for example. Very similar conversations and plots could have happened in any black family’s home nearby, as protesters and tear gas-wielding and riot gear-clad police officers erupt outside.
Chelle (Regina Washington) and her brother Langston “Lank” (Vince McGill) run an after-hours speakeasy in the basement of their Detroit home. He’s got a thing with fun-loving Bonita “Bunny” (Ayoka Lawson), and Chelle is slowly working on something with Sylvester “Sly” (Artist Thornton Jr.), although he’s going much faster than is her style.
Lank and Sly have plans to open a real bar, against the wishes of Chelle, who knows that money could be spent more wisely (echoes of A Raisin in the Sun). But the bigger conflict happens early on when those two rescue white Caroline (Cara Reid) after she blacked out (and from the looks of her face, was knocked around) after a night of partying. They bring her into the basement, and she ends up helping out for a week until she gets back on her feet.
Who is she? Why doesn’t she have family she can call? Will her attraction to black men cause a rift between Lank and Bunny? The ever-cautious Chelle knows it won’t end well, but her heart speaks louder than her head.
It’s a time of change. Albums are giving way to eight-tracks, and Chelle is slow to adopt (don’t do it, Chelle; even the technologies after eight-tracks won’t sound as good as vinyl!). And of course it’s the 1960s in America, where Civil Rights is a fight that will be fought for many years (in some cases, they still are).
There aren’t any surprises here, but the beauty of a play that’s this firmly constructed is that it all but directs itself if the actors are experienced. That works out here because directing credits go to the trio of Washington, McGill and Lawson. It’s usually not a good sign when an actor in the show also directs it, much less three of them, but that tact does no harm here. If anything, it feels a little too facile. It could use a little more grit.
Scenic designer Bradley Gray convincingly turns the K.D. Theatre stage into a basement/bar, with posters and artwork on the walls around the audience. Washington and Lawson do triple-duty as costume designers, and seem to have had success in looking for period clothes at thrift shops—it all fits the era and the characters.
McGill has played Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun before, and Lank is closely related, emotionally (if less complex) than that character, a man willing to risk big because he's sure it’ll pay off. McGill slips into the role with ease; his final breakdown is a gut-punch.
Washington, as usual, gives a performance so honest you always feel for her. Lawson and Thornton find the fire in their characters; and Reid balances an air of mystery and vulnerability with this underlying sense of confidence. She’s no fish out of water.
This play is in Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, along with Sunset Baby, which Jubilee Theatre will stage in 2015. You can bet one of these theaters will follow up with the third play, Skeleton Crew, in the near future. Detroit ’67 is nothing we haven’t seen before, but sometimes it’s just nice to be reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.