Signature Theater’s “Detroit ’67” mixes pain with pleasure. Playwright Dominique Morisseau lets Motown’s feel-good sounds of The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Miracles lull you into a sense of tranquility while hitting you with one of the most damaging uprisings in Detroit’s history.
“Detroit ’67,” winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, is the final show of Signature’s Features filmed season, which was created by Signature Theatre after the pandemic shut down in-person shows. The plot brings us back to that dark time in American history, serving as a reminder for those who lived through it and a cautionary tale for those who didn’t.
In Detroit in the late ‘60s, while Black people were hosting house parties in their basements and unofficial clubs to ease economic depravities caused by White flight, police were busting up and halting these efforts, and in doing so, escalating racial tensions, uprisings and destruction.
The play takes us through the struggles of close African American siblings Chelle and Lank Poindexter who are preparing for their homegrown basement gig with 45-inch vinyl records and newly released 8-track tapes. However, trouble between the two starts to simmer as Lank, tired of scraping to make ends meet, wants to open his own bar with his best friend Sly. Chelle argues that risking their family inheritance on a business that might not succeed is a bad idea.
The plot thickens when Lank finds and rescues a White woman from the streets who is confused and injured and offers their home as a place to recuperate. The taboo of their impending attraction — highly disapproved of by Chelle — serves as a microcosm of the racial friction storming outside their front door.
The New York Times writes of the play, “You can hear echoes of August Wilson in [Dominique Morisseau’s] work, of Lorraine Hansberry, of Tennessee Williams, of Anton Chekhov, but also a voice — seductive, poetic, comic, tough — that is unmistakably her own.”
Like these other iconic playwrights, Morisseau successfully uses the tensions of the wider world as a backdrop that is experienced through the eyes of a single, troubled family.
The entire play takes place in the Poindexter’s basement; however, the audience can feel the violence outside the home seeping in like floodwaters from a monsoon. And although the cast of five is small, one can sense the throngs of rioters and police who are merely a stone’s throw away.
Stori Ayers, who plays Chelle, does a wonderful job exposing the struggles of an African American woman who sees her choices as limited. She is bravely honest to her best girlfriend, Bunny, when she says of Lank’s attraction for the White woman: “I see him look at her, and it makes me feel like we ain’t enough. Like he sees something better in her than he sees in us. Throw us out like a scratched record. But ain’t we got no value?”
Just as Morisseau uses music lyrics throughout the play as a representation of what the characters experience, Chelle’s comment is a reference to the scratched 45s that she prefers over the modern 8-track tape machine.
A feisty Bunny, in a strong performance by Valeka Jessica, is a bit more carefree, practical and a good balance for Chelle as she responds, “Course, little scratch give you character.”
JaBen Early, as Lank, portrays a sensitive man who has high dreams. He wants to stop hustling and start a business he can call his own, hoping a stake in the community will gain him more respect from the cops. He also believes in love — even if it’s found in a person of a different race. However, his fear and doubt that an interracial couple could make it is apparent when he tells Caroline, “I like Black music, you like Black music, but only one of us is Black.”
Emily Kester’s Caroline — subtle and demure — appears naïve to any real danger she could cause the household until the end, when she finally reveals how she came to end up in the Poindexter’s basement.
Sly, played by Greg Alverez, as Lank’s best friend, is a strong addition to the cast and contributes to another subplot in his wishful seduction of Chelle, who, for the most part, doesn’t show much interest.
As one can imagine, the frictions from inside and outside the home finally collide and end in a powerful explosion.
The play exposes race and social issues in an honest, if not, painful story. It also reminds us that history, if not fixed, unfortunately will and does repeat itself.
This production will stream on demand on Marquee TV through Sept. 16.