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Fires in Detroit come to local stage

Dominique Morisseau’s play remembers 1967 in her hometown

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A sold-out audience on Jan. 28 reflected community interest in a situation, described in the regional premiere of “Detroit 67,” that won’t go away.

Busy playwright Dominique Morisseau, who calls Detroit her hometown, drew on clippings given to her by a journalist uncle—and research into the lives of those killed in late July 1967 during riots that started with a police raid on an illegal party on July 22. The party had been in honor of two black veterans who had returned from Vietnam, but it burst out of the space, resulting in crowds fighting police and each other, along with bottle-throwing.

Five days later, 43 people were dead (33 black, 10 white), another 342 injured, 1,400 buildings destroyed and 700 national guard troops had been called in, according to an account in the Curious Theatre program, which also includes an explanatory statement from Morisseau.

In a basement of a middle-class Detroit home, a sister and brother, Chelle (Jada Suzanne Dixon) and Lank (Cajardo Lindsey), plan to hold some after-hours parties in their recreation room to earn extra money. The room is reached by a long flight of wooden stairs, which almost dominate the space. Perhaps that's symbolic?  

Lank appears with an 8-track replacement for the scratchy old phonograph, popping in a Motown recording. That music continues periodically, a soundtrack with the Temptations and others, tying the story together. Chelle seems content to just live in the home willed to them by their parents, but restless Lank wants to get out more into the world. He wants to buy a bar with his friend Sly (Frank Taylor Green), who arrives on the scene, as does the bubbly Bunny (Ilaseia Gray). Sly says police are cracking down on after-hours parties: “We’re treated like trash.” He talks about the proposed bar purchase he and Lank have obviously been discussing, which would use money left by the late parents.

“We need this joint jumpin’ by Friday,” Chelle says firmly as she leaves to prepare food.

The next scene finds Lank and Sly carrying a badly-beaten white woman into the basement, trying to find out who she is and what to do next. They can’t go to the police or they’d be accused of beating her. Chelle complains about Lank being “a Negro Messiah” and hears that the woman was standing along the road and the men asked if she needed help. “She said ‘get me out of here’ and passed out.” Why not take her to the hospital? “They take names at the hospital,” Lank reminds Chelle, who then brings out some bandages and cares for Caroline (Anastasia Davidson).

Chelle also develops feelings for Sly as the story moves along, as do Lank and a recovering but mysterious Caroline. But Dixon’s character is at center and the story revolves around her solid base.

Tension outside and inside grows and fire breaks out on Detroit’s streets. These are tensions among police, government in general and the nation’s black men that have carried through to today.

Will the audience at this play be inspired to activism? Curious artistic director Chip Walton and others with the theatre make another strong case for focus on matters of social justice.

Director Idris Goodwin, who is also a playwright and assistant professor at Colorado College, will direct his “This is Modern Art,” (co-written with Kevin Coval) at the Denver Center in March. His sensitive approach to this production makes us eager to see more of his work.

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