Friday, September 7, 2018

"Detroit '67"

Detroit ‘67
Dominique Morisseau

Halili Knox & Akilah A. Walker
Last year, many celebrations and exhibitions packed the San Francisco calendar to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of 1967, known here and beyond as “The Summer of Love.”  While so-called hippies roamed with peace signs and tie-dyes the streets and parks of The City with their music-filled pleas for free love and no war, the summer of 1967 was also when the one of the worst, deadliest urban riots occurred in U.S. history.  In a city – not unlike many cities in America where white-dominated police forces had lashed out against their black residents with fierce force and hatred for decades -- an after-hours party filled with the sounds of homegrown, Motown music was the ignition point for a conflagration in Detroit that led to 43 deaths, 2000 buildings destroyed, and thousands of National Guard and federal troops with scores of tanks invading the city.

Dominique Morisseau recalls that deadly summer which scarred Detroit for decades afterwards in her funny and frightening, heart-warming and heart-stopping play, Detroit ’67, the first of a trilogy about her hometown.  Opening its season with Detroit ’67, Aurora Theatre Company continues the Bay Area’s growing love affair with Ms. Morisseau that began last year with Berkeley Repertory’s staging of her Ain’t Too Proud and a co-production earlier this year by Marin Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley of her Skeleton Crew. 

Directed with uncanny timing, bold touches, and much humanity by Darryl V. Jones, Aurora’s Detroit ’67 rocks with Motown sounds that soothe and soar, teases with humor both rich and raw, and shakes to the core with historical events serious and shattering.  And all along, Mr. Jones and the incredibly talented cast ensure that we know and remember that headline-grabbing, street-filled events like the Detroit riots are in the end really about the individuals who were safe and happy one day in their homes -- until suddenly they were not.

The Setting Designed by Richard Omsted
Back-wall steps lead into a basement room that is filled with touches of a family’s history including wall drawings both cute and striking, a colorful afghan probably knitted by a mother at some point, and furniture slightly worn but definitely comfy (all designed with as astute eye to the late ‘60s by Richard Olmsted and with the aid of prop master, Christina Bauer).  Chelle (short for Michelle) is having a frank conversation with her record player where the 45-disc of David Ruffin keeps sticking just as he so beautifully tries to croon, “Please don’t leave me girl.”  “Don’t go scratching up on David,” she warns with a mixture of fun and frustration as she tries to untangle another string of Christmas lights to add to those already hanging around the room with its small bar in the corner.  Chelle and her brother, Lank, are turning later in the week the home they just inherited from their recently deceased and much-adored father into a late-hours dance hall (something quite common at the time in this African-American section of Detroit at 12th and Clairmont).

Akilah A. Walker & Rafael Jordan
Tall and with perfectly permed hair full of big, fluffy curls, Chelle (Halili Knox) exudes a strong sense of determination and is clearly the firmly rooted, more conservative of the brother-sister pairing.  When we meet Lank (Rafael Jordan), we soon learn he is a happy-natured, young man who has ambitions for him and his sister and is tired of the way the whites in power outside this house treat him and others like him. (“I’m tired of being treated like trash.”)  He especially detests the much-despised “pigs” who are apt as not to stop him on the street, telling him “to get my nigger ass home and not come out again tonight.” 

Lank is ready to be “above ground, just like them white folks.”  For him, “above ground” starts with the 8-track player he has just brought home (“This is changing how we hear music, and we get to change with it”) to use tonight for their party – a device Chelle looks at in disdain as she also eyes longingly her old, but definitely flawed, portable record player.

Myers Clark & Rafael Jordan
Lank also has more plans, including using the a good portion of the $15,000 their parents have left them to buy a neighborhood bar with his best friend Sly (Myers Clark), a smooth-moving, sweet-talking pal who is also a big dreamer.  Together, they want to open “Sly and Lank’s Feel-Good Shack,” something Chelle vehemently opposes.  To her stern looks and piercing eyes that say “no,” Lank responds in unbounded optimism and excitement, “Life is not just about keeping what you got ... It’s about making something better.”

Emily Radosevich, Akilah A. Walker & Halili Knox
The clearly strong but currently strained relationship of the siblings becomes further tested when Sly and Lank – after a night on the town and clearly both a bit tipsy – bring home a surprise that further infuriates but also frightens Chelle.  Asleep on the basement couch she finds a woman – a white woman -- asleep with multiple bruises on her arms and a face full of dried blood.  On their way home from the bars, Lank recounts how they found the young woman staggering around and then saw her collapse.  Feeling sorry for her and scared as two black men to take her to the hospital or (worse yet) to the police, they brought her home.

Caroline (Emily Radosevich) comes with many secrets of her past but also with an ability quickly to fit into the household and to be a hit at the successful dance party.  As Chelle’s best friend, Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) notes, “White girls can get the party going ... and are some kind of aphrodisiac.”  But then the full-of-pizzazz, mini-skirt-wearing Bunny is one who over-flows with zest for life and is most liable to say anything on the more outrageous side (“Don’t look at me like I got some titty in my forehead”).  Along with Sly, she is part of this extended family of the siblings where love is evident even when there are plenty of pointed jabs and moments of tensions that erupt into full-on shouting matches.

And after all, even with the invasion into their lives of Caroline and of Lank’s ideas for a new business, things are pretty normal in the Poindexter household.  That is, until 3:15 a.m. on July 23, 1967.   The events of that night and the next few days become cataclysmic both outside and inside of the small basement in ways that make everything else seem almost trivial.

This ensemble of actors – individually and collectively -- could hardly be more engaging, more gripping, or more affecting in a wide range of emotional responses from hilarity to heartbreak.  Each captures a personality that is uniquely portrayed in every respect – vocally and physically.  Twists and turns of voice and body leave lasting impressions while ensuring immediate audience response.

Supporting their efforts is a creative team that together also plays a starring role in this must-not-be-missed production.  Besides the aforementioned ‘60s-detailed scenic design of Richard Olmsted, the costumes of Kitty Muntzel are a show onto themselves with the designs, colors, materials, and (at least in terms of Bunny) shortness of skirts of the 1960s becoming an encyclopedia of the hip looks of Motown, U.S.A. 

Cliff Caruthers’ sound design is also a major factor in the play’s powerful impact from beginning to end.  Those scratchy sounds of the 45s of yesteryear and the distinct tones that could only be from anything but an eight-track both emit from their respective players (themselves museum pieces today).  The sweet outdoor sounds of birds early in the play give way to the increasingly disturbing sounds of sirens, firebombs, angry mobs, and penetrating helicopters as the riots begin – to the point of literally shaking us in our seats. 

When sound effects couple with the outstanding lighting design of Jeff Rowlings where startling red flashes and explosions from the streets outside find their way into the darkness of the basement, the fury of those riots of fifty years ago plays out in real fashion to the point of being sweat-producing.  Topping it all off are fascinating, educating, and ultimately horrifying film clips showing everything from home-based dance parties to the atrocities of police brutality in streets full of burning buildings.

There are many reasons that Aurora Theatre’s Detroit ’67 is a must-see production.  Dominique Morrisseau’s brilliant script is a captivating story full of genuine love of and devotion to family; of an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that has made this country the envy of the world, and of the seething hate that has too long been etched into too much of the majority race for those not of their white skin.  With that script and under the inspired direction of Darryl V. Jones, this cast and creative team score a hit that is a history important to recall and to remember.

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Detroit ’67 continues in extended run through October 7, 2018, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by Darryl V. Jones

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