Follow the Path to Ferguson: AART’s “Detroit 67”

Detroit

On Halloween night 2014, African American Repertory Theatre’s (AART) regional premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s award-winning period drama Detroit 67 opened its run at the KD Studio Theatre with an enthusiastic standing ovation from its sold-out multi-generational, multi-ethnic audience. The crowd hung around after to congratulate the cast and bask in the play’s artistry and discuss its relevance to current events. The word “Ferguson” might come to mind. Call it a fine way to welcome this production to the region, a work that derives inspiration from both August Wilson’s The Piano and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Call it wishful thinking. Opening night the house consisted of yours truly, one other critic and about six die-hard supporters of AART’s productions. I know “it was Halloween”, but where the heck is Dallas when this stunning a production has its opening night?

Morisseau wrote the play as first element of a trilogy about her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, as part of a Public Theatre Lab series in association with the Classical Theater of Harlem and the National Black Theater. It opened at The Public in New York City in March 2013. Gritty and contemporary in tempo and sharp transition, it evokes 1967 in minute detail, from costume style to relationships and dialogue. Motown music soars across its two-hour arc with dynamic energy and soulfulness, tunes appearing to emerge from a “newfangled” 8-track player that illustrate a moment or set a mood with symphonic accuracy. Hard to keep from tapping the toes.

The play portrays a frightening span of disastrous street riots in an older neighborhood of Detroit, dealt with entirely from the basement home of a 30-something working-class brother and sister. Chelle is the family “adult”, widowed, careful, realistic, the mother of a teen safely tucked away from harm in boarding school. Her younger brother Lank (a nickname for Langston, homage to Langston Hughes, whose poem provided the title to A Raisin in the Sun) is a dreamer with ambition and a visionary soul and risk-taker. Lank uses the family inheritance to buy a neighborhood bar with his best buddy Sly, against his sister’s wishes. Neither man is a criminal, nor are they troublemakers; they appear truly naïve. Neither seems prepared to deal with the violence encountered from police when looters and street thugs attempt to burn the bar and Detroit disintegrates into a battleground of destructive riots. Lank rescues a battered white girl from the streets and installs her in the basement home to recuperate, breaking with longtime taboos held by both white and black cultures. Family dispute, fear of discovery, tender romance: all emerge and roughhouse together in the basement home, while the threat of anarchy and violent death runs rampant upstairs on the streets. Detroit 67 unfolds as a carefully constructed, believable and intriguing portrayal of a sad historical event (over four days, 43 people were killed, 342 injured and 1400 buildings burned to ash), seen through the eyes of “normal, decent” folks. It ties up loose ends a bit too neatly at finale but holds the audience rapt along the way, caressed with Motown sound’s mystique and the genuine power of love and hope.

Vince McGill as Lank; Ayoka Lawson as Bunny

Vince McGill as Lank; Ayoka Lawson as Bunny

Co-directed by AART founding members Regina Washington and Vince McGill and regionally respected actress/director Ayoka Lawson, the three play the pivotal roles of Chelle, Lank and Chelle’s best friend Bunny. Washington and McGill have worked together a long time, so the brother-sister relationship flows naturally between them. Washington conveys a solid, grounded essence, as if she always knows the safe path to follow and trusts her instincts as wise, cautious Chelle. An Equity actor with a wealth of experience in major venues across the US, McGill expresses a fluid emotional range the way a master violinist bows a Stradivarius. KD Studio Theatre is an intimate space, easy to overact there. McGill explores every nuance of his character’s arc with clarity, yet always seems spontaneous, utterly natural. Lawson’s Bunny and Artist Thornton Jr.’s Sly function in balanced contrast to Chelle and Lank. Written more broadly and with funnier lines and moments, they complement the play’s darker soul with a more playful aspect. As the white girl Caroline with a secret and shady past, Cara Reid reveals both a survivor’s cool edginess as well as honest vulnerability, both appealing to the kind-hearted visionary Lank. When Caroline arrives, there can be no doubt that the external world will soon follow. The edge-of-seat questions are “how” and “when”.

From the original year-specific magazines on the set’s coffee table to the graphics and Motown photographs displayed throughout the entire theatre space, the world of 1967 Detroit comes vividly and magically to life. Scenic design: Bradley Gray; properties design: Angela Washington. Costumes reflect the era with accuracy: Ayoka Lawson and Regina Washington (oh, the fine boots!). Vince McGill’s sound design works like a charm; it really seems like the rhythmic music pulsating through the venue comes from the 8-tracks popped into the onstage player or the scratched and skipping 45’s on Chelle’s old record player. Yummy.

Irma P. Hall, Vince McGill and Regina Washington founded African American Repertory Theater in 2007 in Desoto TX to “produce engaging, culturally diverse theater, while educating the community on African-American History and the arts”. The company now performs at KD Studio Theatre, 2600 Stemmons Freeway, near Oak Lawn and the design district. Plenty of accessible, well-lit FREE parking. Don’t miss Dominique Morriseau’s Edward M. Kennedy Prize-winning drama Detroit 67 and support diverse, quality theatre.

 Runs through November 23, 2014.

TICKETS: www.aareptheater.com 972.572.0998

March 2013 review of the play at the Public Theatre:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/13/theater/reviews/detroit-67-at-the-public-theater.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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