“Detroit ‘67” is a story of police riots and family ties

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Scene from
Scene from "Detroit '67" at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
McCarter Theatre production builds to an emotional climax

Last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau treated New Jersey audiences to her gritty play Skeleton Crew about auto assembly line workers facing an uncertain future. This year, she returns with another play from her “Detroit Project” trilogy, Detroit ’67, at the McCarter Theatre Center. This play, while starting out slow, builds to a powerful emotional climax. It is worth the trip to Princeton to see it.

Scene from "Detroit '67" at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Scene from “Detroit ’67” at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The music of Motown provides the sound track to the show, set in July 1967. The father of Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) has just passed away, leaving the siblings with the family home and a small but tidy sum of cash. Chelle wants to use the money to upgrade the after-hours club they run in the basement and pay for her son’s education. Lank seeks to improve their lot by purchasing a legitimate night club in partnership with his best friend Sly (Will Cobbs). On the night the deal is sealed, Lank comes across a badly-beaten white woman, rescues her from the streets, and takes her to shelter in the basement. Chelle reluctantly allows the woman, Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), to stay for a week while she recovers, under the condition that Caroline work in the basement club. Sly pursues romance with the no-nonsense Chelle; Caroline and Lank reluctantly feel an attraction; and Chelle’s friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie) watches it all with sass and wry amusement. Outside the haven of the house, corrupt police are raiding after-hours joints and, with reinforcements from the National Guard, spreading destruction and terror throughout the community under the guise of “keeping the peace”.

The cast pulls the audience deeper into the unfolding drama
Scene from "Detroit '67" at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Scene from “Detroit ’67” at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Director Jade King Carroll starts the play off slowly, with the characters appearing to be mere stereotypes. However, as the play progresses, Ms. Carroll and her cast transform these stereotypes into fully-rounded characters, pulling the audience deeper into the unfolding drama. This is a play with no villains per se, just five distinct people with their own philosophies and points of view. While there may be conflict, underneath are strong bonds of affection. Those bonds, those conflicts, in turn heighten the tensions of living in a community under siege by those who are supposed to protect it, and drive the play to its emotional conclusion.

Scene from "Detroit '67" at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Scene from “Detroit ’67” at the McCarter Theatre. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The set, created by designer Riccardo Hernandez, is a marvelously constructed, thoroughly lived-in finished basement crammed with a couch, chairs, a bar with stools, a full-size refrigerator, and a fancy new 8-track tape player. Nicole Pearse’s lighting enhances the emotional level, while Karin Graybash’s sound design is perfect, as is playwright Morisseau’s choice of Motown classic songs. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are well-done, and the party clothes for Bunny and Sly make a witty comment on fashions of the period.

Detroit ’67 is a powerful work

While I wish the start of Detroit ’67 was stronger, less stereotypical and more human, the play as a whole is a powerful work. Dominique Morisseau has created a piece that fully justifies her recent selection to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She has captured the essence of a time and place within a story that is both historical memory play and strong human drama. I recommend you see and accept the theatrical gift that is Detroit ’67 at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.

Detroit ‘67 is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre on the campus of Princeton University through October 28, 2018. For tickets and information, visit mccarter.org.