Onstage: Detroit '67

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 “trying’.”

Detroit '67
Detroit '67

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. 

The 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.” 

Detroit '67 continues through April 5. $18-$44. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, ensemblecincinnati.org.

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