By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Pittsburgh is in the midst of a mini-festival featuring the work of rising star playwright Dominique Morisseau. Earlier in the month, City Theater presented Pipeline, her drama about America’s propensity for incarcerating black men as a matter of course. Now Carnegie Mellon University joins the fun with their production of Detroit ’67, Morisseau’s period piece set during that historic summer when Detroit, if not the whole country, went up in flames.
Detroit ’67 continues through December 1. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. 412/268-2407. www.drama.cmu.edu
It’s July 1967 and we’re in one of Detroit’s “economically distressed” neighborhoods. For income, brother and sister Lank and Chelle have turned their basement into an after-hours club. They’ve been closed for a while, since the death of a parent, but they’re now ready to get the joint back up and running, enlisting the aid of Bunny, who functions as a concierge for both natives and out-of-towners looking for the hot spots.
It’s hard to imagine a spot hotter than Detroit in 1967. After decades of brutal treatment at the hands of a corrupt police force and mirroring what’s been happening all year in other cities across the country, Detroit is just about to explode into five days of rioting which will ultimately lead to the death of 43 people and the commandeering of the city by the National Guard and U.S. Army.
Chelle – the clear-headed sibling – thinks if they keep their heads down and stay within their prescribed realm they’ll be okay. But Lank is burning with an ambition to move beyond the small world into which others have consigned him.
Sly, a family friend, wants Lank to invest a small family legacy into a new venture which causes all sorts of tension with Chelle (the fact that she and Sly have unresolved romantic issues doesn’t make it any less of a mess.)
But that’s only the least of their problems. One night Lank and Sly bring home Caroline, a white girl who has been beaten up and left for dead on the side of the road. And the soon-to-be lit powder keg outside is echoed in the basement.
Morisseau creates five distinct characters, each with a need that just aches for something. Watching how all these folks mesh and, more importantly, how they don’t is one of the most rewarding pleasures of Detroit ’67.
I’m not sure where this play falls in Morisseau’s oeuvre, but I’m guessing that it’s an earlier work where she’s beginning to get her hands around the craft. Like many early works, Detroit ’67 is frequently snagged a common trap; most of the action happens offstage and the characters have to come on to report it. We’re basically watching people react to events, rather than seeing the events themselves.
It might not be as big a problem as it is here if it weren’t for the other “early play” trap – at two hours and 40 minutes it’s just too long to hide the flaws. If a half hour were cut (which could be done easily) we might not have time to notice how “second hand” the action is.
Kym Moore directs and has brought forth five unbelievably strong performances from her cast. Moore has obviously driven them to dig into the messy humanity of these lives and I couldn’t imagine a more powerful ensemble that this. Gena Sims, Kameron Kierce, Safiya Harris, Antonio Jeffries and Carmen Flood are – rather than act – these characters and bring a huge amount of life to this fascinating if problematic play.