Detroit Was In Flames as One Family Tries to Survive in Hartford Stage’s Detroit ‘67

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 It is sometimes said that there are only four or five plots in the world, and that may be true. If so, what differentiates novels, films and plays is not if the plot is unique or even unpredictable, but how well the author handles it. The best make the plot seem fresh and new.

I wish I could say that Dominique Morisseau had totally done that with Detroit ’67 now at Hartford Stage through Sunday, March 10.  But though she has tried hard, she only partially succeeds.

This is the second play in her “Detroit Trilogy” – Long Wharf produced the first of the plays (at least in terms of the period in which it is set) Paradise Blue earlier in the season.

As the title indicates this is set in 1967, a period of enormous racial upheaval that resulted in riots in many major cities. Detroit was no exception. And, as is so common, the people most hurt by the riots were the neighbors and families of the rioters. (The riots began on 12th street near an illegal after-hours club on July 23. By the time they ended 43 people were dead, 300+ were injured, 1400 building burned and 7000 national guard and Army troops were in the city.)

The play centers on Chelle and Lank, adult brother and sister who have received some money from their mother’s estate. The play opens as Chelle is cleaning up the basement in preparation of reopening an after-hours club there. She is joined by her friend Bunny (beautifully played by Nyanhale Allie) who does not seem to strive as much as Chelle does. Soon Chelle’s brother, Lank (named for Langston Hughes) arrives with his friend Sly. The talk goes to possibly using  the inheritance to buy a local bar; Chelle is not agreeable because some of the money is to keep her son at Tuskegee Institute. But Sly and Lank seem determined to go around her if they can’t convince her.

In the extended exposition that is the overlong first act, Lank and Sly carry in a white woman who seems to be unconscious. They explain to Chelle that they found her on the street, injured (probably from a beating) and Lank felt her eyes were imploring him to save her. Chelle sees the danger of having a young white woman in their house. But Lank prevails; when she wakes, he offers to let her stay there; in return she will help with the bar.

Act two is set following a successful evening and days after: we learn more about Caroline the white woman, Chelle learns that Sly and Lank have purchased the bar behind her back, and the riots break out. Sly and Lank try to save their property to predictable results.

Morisseau’s drama has elements of both A Raisin in the Sun and Piano Lesson in it with the conflict between the sister and brother in the latter play and the mother and son in Raisin. In each the woman is pragmatic and practical while the man wants to assert his independence and equality even if it puts his future and that of his family in jeopardy.

Once again, Morisseau has created a sexpot character that presumably adds some humor and contrasts in this play with the more straight-laced Chelle who is a widow. And we must have the male friend who wants to play the angles and helps lead Lank into the investment.

A complication is that Lank develops romantic feelings for Caroline, who finally reveals her past and who was responsible for her condition.

This co-production with New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, is nicely directed by Jade King Carroll. But she can’t overcome the unevenness and predictability of many of the elements in the play.

Outstanding in the production is the lighting design of Nicole Pearce and the sound design by Karin Graybash – together they create the chaos outside the basement during the riots.

The cast works wonders with the stereotypical plot and characters. Nyhale Allie is sassy and funny as Bunny, while Myxolydia Tyler is the strong, practical Chelle. Will Cobbs is excellent when he attempts to woo Chelle (she almost succumbs). Ginna LeVine is the battered Caroline; the character is so contradictory that the role is difficult to play. Johnny Ramey is the impractical Lank.

Some in the audience may find the constant reference to the police as “pigs” upsetting and disconcerting despite that being accurate for the period.

Do the good things in Detroit ’67 outweigh the predictableness? It is up to you to decide.

For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

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