PlayMakers Repertory Company has recently opened a play that should ring in our ears like an all-too-familiar tocsin, wailing over the sweet soul music. However, it succeeds less at rattling us with the historical similarities to current conditions than it does at touching us with its more intimate moments. Dominique Morisseau's Detroit '67 takes place immediately before and during the terrible days that July when long-time police brutality and murders of the black population of Motor City finally were met with fire. To fortify the local police, Michigan's governor sent in the National Guard. President Johnson sent in the Army: tanks in the streets; bullets, blood, and flames; black people shot for breathing.
Morisseau focuses on one family — a brother and sister — and their conflicting desires for safety and for something more. (Many viewers will note references and parallels to A Raisin in the Sun, including the afghan on the couch — the same one used in the last PRC Raisin.) They have a house, left to them by their late parents, and a little bit of cash. The sister, Chelle, wants the money to ensure that her son will have enough to complete his education at the Tuskegee Institute; the brother, Lank, wants to take it to buy a bar with his pal Sly — a scheme that could release Chelle and Lank from scraping along by holding illegal after-hours parties in their basement, or it could destroy their minimal security. Also on the scene is the voluptuous Bunny, who neither lives in fear nor agitates for change: she goes with the flow. And then there's the white girl Lank and Sly rescue when they find her after she's been beaten in a neighborhood where white women are very unusual.
It's a story that should take you by the throat and tear you up, and then fill you with admiration and hope — but the performance on the 18th never took fire, if you will pardon the expression. Some of the fault seems to lie in the play itself: Its characters are more symbolic types than true individuals. The play takes forever to set itself up, and of course, one knows beforehand what is bound to happen. There is a big difference between the predictable, which incurs boredom, and the inevitable, which instills dread. Some of the problems stem from the direction (by Lisa Rothe, whose previous work at PRC has been wholly admirable), which is strangely fussy and fails to bring the characters to dynamic life. The staging attempts to create the needed sense of compression, even incarceration, to power what should be the explosive, heart-rending events of the second act, but doesn't quite pull it off. The enclosed basement room where all the action occurs is indeed like a safe burrow, but the encroaching danger and chaos of the outside world (symbolized by the white girl's infiltration of black space) is not sufficiently indicated by the chunks of debris hanging from the grid. One wonders why, with all of PRC's projection capabilities, historic photographs and video were not used. (The sound design, by Justin Ellington is very good, replete with snips of the best Motown songs of the year.)
Still, there are some wonderful moments when speech, character, and actor fuse. Myles Bullock, a third-year MFA student in the Professional Actor Training Program, gave the best performance I've seen by him as Lank, a young man longing to make something of his own outside the safe burrow, and drawn to the troubled white girl Caroline (Katy Castaldi, who did not work up to the level of the others on stage). Tangela Large carried on big time as Bunny, but in the second act when Bunny turns serious and her hair goes from straightened to full afro, Large's performance was far more subtle. Charlie Hudson III's Sly was the most fully realized, and his speech about trying so hard to make it to tomorrow that you never see all the tomorrows coming after, was extremely moving. Sly is all for bold living, for taking the risk, but he's in love with Chelle, whose hyper-cautious rigidity was well-expressed by Rachel Christopher (who eventually let's us see the passionate heart beneath Chelle's shell). She was lovely in the play's final scene, and almost redeemed the sight-blocking pipe downstage, dancing with it as the lights went down.
Detroit '67 continues at PlayMakers Paul Green Theatre through Sunday, October 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar. If you go, try not to sit on the right side of the center section, or your view will be partially blocked by the aforementioned pipe.