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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Detroit '67
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Also see Garrett's review of Into the Woods


Myles Bullock and Rachel Christopher
Photo by Jon Gardiner
Detroit, July 1967. Police raid an unlicensed bar on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, arresting and beating a number of black people. For the next four days the city will burn as businesses are destroyed and shops looted. This will be one of the largest race riots in American history, and it is the background of Dominique Morriseau's play, Detroit '67, in production by PlayMakers in the Paul Green Theatre at the University of North Carolina's Center for Dramatic Art through October 2.

Detroit '67 made its Off-Broadway debut in 2013. Morriseau grew up in Detroit and knows first-hand the dreams created and hopes shattered in this city, once a booming industrial community but brought to its knees by economic disparity and racial divides. A commentary on the historic race riots, the play is also a biting reminder of the struggles plaguing our society today.

It opens with Michelle, or "Chelle," fully inhabited by Rachel Christopher, cleaning up the speakeasy bar in her basement and dancing to Motown music on the record player. As the record begins to skip, she goes back and forth to try to get the needle back in the groove, but to no avail. She shares this house with her brother Langston, or "Lank," played by Myles Bullock. Their father has died recently, leaving an inheritance, and the two are at odds about how to use it. Chelle wants to pay off the house and get her son through his higher education at the Tuskegee Institute, but Lank would like to invest in a legitimate bar with his friend Sly, played by Charlie Hudson, III. This is their conflict: Chelle wants to have immediate security and not take risks, and Lank would rather dream and take a chance at better things. He brings home an eight-track cassette player, but she'd rather stick to her records, even if they skip. Lank tells his sister, "Life is not keeping what you got, it's about building something new." The situation becomes more complicated when Lank and Sly bring home a mysteriously wounded white woman who asks to stay with them until she can afford a train ride. Everything comes to a head in the sweltering summer, and violence lurks just outside.

Detroit '67 is the first in a three-play cycle called The Detroit Projects, and one can see the influence of the likes of Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and Richard Wright on Morriseau's writing. Music by the Temptations, the Supremes, and the Miracles is woven intricately into the production, functioning almost as another character on the stage. Though one might be tempted to dismiss some of these characters as coming straight out of a 1970s black sitcom, the truths of their existence are still clear.

All five actors give stellar performances filled with conviction and purpose. Tangela Large as the siblings' friend Bunny provides some hearty comic relief throughout, and Katy Castaldi as Caroline, the unexpected houseguest, delivers a heartbreaking performance in the outsider role.

PlayMakers always hits the mark with its set and lights. Lee Savage has created a beautiful and believable basement of a home in 1967, replete with children's paintings and historic posters of African-American figures. When the riot erupts outside the home, pieces of rubble descend from the rafters into the basement, a powerful metaphor for the destruction outside literally invading this space. Xavier Pierce's lighting design creates poignant moods as the scenes change from day to night and safe to dangerous. McKay Coble's costumes add to the verisimilitude.

Almost fifty years have passed since 1967, and we are still contending with incidents of police brutality and racial discrimination. Chelle's records continue to skip. Detroit '67 is a powerful reminder of where we have been and how far we still have left to go.

Detroit '67 is presented at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art. 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, NC, through October 2, 2016. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529. The play runs two hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. It contains adult language and themes that may make it more appropriate for patrons 14 and older. The production also utilizes strobe lighting.

Playwright: Dominique Morriseau
Director: Lisa Rothe
Scenic Designer: Lee Savage
Costumer Designer: McKay Coble
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Dramaturg: Jacqueline E. Lawton
Vocal Coach: John Patrick

Cast:
Chelle (Michelle): Rachel Christopher
Lank (Langston): Myles Bullock
Bunny (Bonita): Tangela Large
Sly (Sylvester): Charlie Hudson, III
Caroline: Katy Castaldi


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