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Rousuck's Review: In Center Stage's "Detroit '67," A Dark Resonance With Baltimore

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Photo: Richard Anderson
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Dominique Morisseau’s play, “Detroit ’67,” takes place in a basement. Even though there’s some illegal activity going on in this basement, it feels like a safe haven in that particular city at that particularly incendiary time.

It’s a time and place that bear decided similarities to the unrest that arose in Baltimore a year ago in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered police custody. That’s among the reasons Center Stage selected “Detroit ’67.”

There’s immense tension between Detroit’s black citizens and police in Morisseau’s play, part of a trilogy set in different decades in her hometown. Police don’t figure into the cast. Instead, we see the impact of the July 1967 riots on four African-Americans who live in the ravaged neighborhood.

The main characters are an adult brother and sister, Lank and Chelle, whose widowed father recently died and left them the house where they grew up.

To make ends meet and pay off the mortgage, Lank and Chelle charge for late-night, illicit house parties in their basement. But they also have a small cash inheritance. Lank plans to use this to buy a bar with his best friend – “to be legit,” as Lank puts it.

Chelle – played with rigid determination by Michelle Wilson – is having none of it, as she explains to Amari Cheatom’s Lank.

It’s a conflict right out of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.” There, a son incurs his mother’s wrath by using his late father’s legacy to buy a bar.

I don’t fault playwright Morisseau for borrowing from – paying homage to – the best. But I do fault her for a play in which much of the tension is revealed through exposition.

Director Kamilah Forbes and her design team have created a period-perfect production, from set designer Michael Carnahan’s sagging Scandinavian sofa to sound designer Justin Ellington’s period music.

But the play itself has one element that feels forced -- a young white woman whom Lank and his friend bring home unconscious after finding her beaten and delirious. Once again, Lank’s sister is not pleased.

Lank convinces his reluctant sister to let the girl stay with them for a while. Who is she? And what happened to her? Primarily, she seems to be a reminder of troubled race relations – an unnecessary reminder in a play set against the backdrop of riots that were all too real.

Sarah Nealis’ performance, or even casting, doesn’t help. Nealis seems more like a prep school girl than a denizen of the mean streets – as her character is supposed to be.

The rest of the cast is “right on,” as they said in the Sixties -- especially Amari Cheatom as trusting, big-hearted Lank. And adamant as Michelle Wilson’s character appears, Wilson makes Chelle’s eventual turnabout believable.

This crucial turning point redeems a play and a production in which too much of the emotion is carried by the evocative Motown soundtrack and alarming riot footage.

Center Stage has produced “Detroit ’67” in association with the Detroit Public Theatre, where it will be performed next. I have no doubt that the play will strike a chord with audiences there. But even seen in the context of the anniversary of Baltimore’s unrest, “Detroit ’67” is too burdened with telling instead of showing to be deeply stirring here.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

The Center Stage production of “Detroit ’67” continues at Towson University’s Center for the Arts through May 8.

 

 

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.