The year was 1967, it was a hot July, and Detroit was on fire. Riots, instigated by the white Detroit police force, were happening all over the city as the African American residents fought to defend their homes and businesses. A violent five-day streak resulted in 1,000 burned buildings, more than 7,000 arrests, and 43 deaths. This national news also led to riots in other cities and was a driving force in the Black Power movement.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau recreates a fictional story within this historical time in her play, "Detroit '67," which is being staged at Blackfriars Theatre through November 3. It's a sobering follow-up to the saccharine season opener "Guys and Dolls," but --disappointingly -- the theater was not nearly as full on opening night of "Detroit '67."
The plot surrounds Lank (Laron Dewberry) and Chelle (Ashona Pulliam), siblings who are running an underground nightclub in the basement of their downtown Detroit home. The two have inherited the house from their deceased parents, and are using the money from the nightclub to pay college tuition for Chelle's son, who is attending the prestigious Tuskegee University. Helping with the cause is Lank's best friend, Sly (Aceyon Owens), and Chelle's best friend, Bunny (Tahina McPherson). When Sly and Lank find an injured white girl, Caroline (Melanie McBride), on the black side of town and bring her home to Chelle for help, it kindles a series of events leading up to the riots.
J. Simmons, who has been onstage frequently in the past few years at Blackfriars (including as Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls" last month), directs the production, and his attention to important details and pivotal moments is keenly felt throughout the two-and-a-half hour show. The small cast of five, mostly new faces for Blackfriars, stayed focused and character-driven for the run, even when a surprise guest (a mouse the Blackfriars crew has dubbed "Stubby") popped up and ran around the stage in the middle of a weighty scene between Lank and Caroline.
Though it's hard sometimes to tell whose story the play is telling, Pulliam clearly leads the cast as the cautious, motherly Chelle. Her emotional transformation is powerful, and her energy lends spotlight to other members of the cast in ways that a true leading character should. Opposite her as younger brother Lank, Dewberry is at once charming and reckless, saving Caroline in many ways even as he spends away his inheritance on a whim. The chemistry between him and McBride is palpable, and McBride's waifish, fearful Caroline blooms in the light of Dewberry's warmth. Seemingly the youngest in the cast, McBride holds her own during several weighty emotional scenes.
With her fabulous bouffant wig (designed by Adriana Lipomi) and quippy timing, McPherson is the quintessential sidekick, there to drink wine and talk Chelle down as best friend Bunny. As Lank's best friend Sly, Owens is a ray of light to the siblings, there to romance Chelle with Motown tunes when she allows it, and to dream big with Lank. His contagious stage presence takes the entire cast up a notch whenever he is present.
Set design -- which is the entire basement of Lank and Chelle's house -- by Allen Wright Shannon is impressive, encompassing the hominess of a family dwelling, with expert finishing touches by props master John Engel in the art, furniture styles, knickknacks and even the style of the washer and dryer. There's plenty to look at throughout the show, and it's a set that's functional enough to give the actors natural blocking and movement through the many dialogue-heavy scenes. Rounding out the set's colorful pops is Katherine McCarthy's costume design, worthy of emulation even for today.
During each scene change blackout, newspaper clippings from the era are projected on screen, a reminder that while the story onstage may be fictional, the riots of 1967 were very real, and they are soberingly reminiscent of recent police brutality headlines. While "Detroit '67" is not the most uplifting night out, its strong performances, historical content, and a distinct relevance to current events make for an impactful experience.