Sly, a character in Dominique Morisseau’s new play, Detroit ’67, says, “You wanna believe stuff can happen that’ll make you smile. You wanna dream … and even if the dream don’t work out … even if it don’t last … at least you felt real good tryin’.” The “stuff” that happens in Detroit ’67, making its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati this month, is not something to smile about — but it might be possible to feel good about the “tryin’,” even though 48 years later the backdrop of this story feels eerily familiar, perhaps leading us to ask if America will ever rise above such racially driven conflicts.
The details behind the story of Chelle (Zina Camblin) and Lank (Bryant Bentley), a sister and brother hoping to build a secure future, are this: In late July 1967 more than 10,000 citizens of Detroit rioted. Police had raided a blind pig — an unauthorized after-hours hangout very much like the one Chelle and Lank have established in their family’s basement — where more than 80 patrons, all African-American, had gathered to celebrate the return of a Vietnam veteran. In a racially tense climate, some of them began looting nearby businesses.
During the following days, federal troops were called and equipped with tanks, machine guns and helicopters to quell the violence. When the smoke cleared five days later, 43 people were dead, 33 African Americans and 10 whites. In retrospect, much of the unrest was exacerbated by police brutality. As many as 2,500 businesses were looted or burned, and roughly 400 families found themselves homeless.
Chelle and Lank’s blind pig, a cluttered downstairs rec room, does not look like an illegal operation. In fact, it appears to be the scene for an amateur Christmas party — a few strings of colored lights and a bar set-up. (Brian c. Mehring’s basement set is picture perfect with astonishing detailed set detailing — posters, calendars, magazine covers, décor from the ’60s and a turntable spinning 45 rpm Motown tunes — by Shannon Rae Lutz.) They’re striving to raise funds to continue paying for the home they grew up in, now that their parents have passed.
Camblin and Bentley are convincing as the responsible older sister and her dreamer brother. She simply wants to make ends meet, while he’s yearning to take the proceeds of their efforts — maybe even sell the house — and invest in a neighborhood bar where he and his friend Sly can find success (Darnell Pierre Benjamin is entertaining to watch as a fast-talking schemer who conspires with Lank). Chelle’s sassy friend Bunny (Burgess Byrd in a funny if caricatured role) brings moments of truth and comic relief to the action. Their hopes are derailed by the rioting, and circumstances get further complicated when Lank and Sly rescue Caroline (Leslie Goddard), a young white woman they’ve found unconscious in the midst of the unrest. With no means of support, she moves in and provides modest help with the fledgling business, but her presence causes friction between Chelle and Lank.
Morisseau’s play won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for drama inspired by American history. The jury awarding the prize described it as “a work grounded in historical understanding that also comments meaningfully on the pressing issues of our day.”
That it does, although the story’s sad final moments are apparent well before they happen, and the outcome seems a tad simplistic. Nevertheless, Morisseau writes with a real sense of character, and ETC’s cast, directed by Lynn Meyers, offers convincing, honest portraits of these characters. (Caroline is more of a cipher with less than clear motives; she is more of a catalyst for the dynamic between Chelle and Lank, but Goddard plays her with convincing vulnerability.)
In her director’s program notes for Detroit ’67, Meyers references recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and recalls her own experience at ETC in 2001 when outrage over the nearby shooting of Timothy Thomas began just steps away from her theater. She and the cast of a show in rehearsal had to leave the Over-the-Rhine theater, and she recalls feelings of fear, anger and disbelief.
Her notes begin with the observation that she’s been telling herself “it’s not 1967. It’s 2015.” She is dismayed that the hatred and anger that fueled the fires in Detroit are still burning, but she adds, “Our history can’t be our legacy.” Her conclusion: “Detroit ’67 is not an indictment. It calls us to love and hope, no matter what.” Her sentiment is conveyed in ETC’s heartfelt production.
DETROIT ’67 , presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through April 5.