Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Recently, Long Wharf Theatre staged Paradise Blue, the second work in the author's trio of Detroit plays, and Westport Country Playhouse brings the third, Skeleton Crew, to the boards in June. Morisseau writes with great feel for her characters and is accurate with depiction of time and place. The Hartford Stage production benefits from stirring and soulful Motown sounds such as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," which opens the evening, and other songs like "Dancing in the Street" and the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There." Directing, Jade King Carroll maximizes tunes and coaxes the pace. Her choices are wise ones.
Detroit experienced great racial unrest during July of 1967. The setting for this play is the basement of a Detroit house with concrete walls showcasing posters of Joe Lewis and Muhammad Ali, a Detroit Pistons pennant, and other graphics (such as a painted raised black fist). Designer Riccardo Hernandez makes it happen with spot-on effectiveness.
The parents of Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and her brother Lank (Johnny Ramey) have left them the place. Loving music, the siblings, led by Chelle, make themselves some cash by hosting downstairs parties. These more or less make the basement a competitive club, but without a license. The enterprise has value as a relaxing locale, filled with music (via records and 8-track tapes).
Also on hand is Lank's good friend Sly (Will Cobbs), who is dapper and takes a shine to women. Chelle loves it when her close confidant Bunny (Nyahale Allie) appears early on and again and again. Bunny, evidently a presence in the community, is aware of her physically enticing attributes and she is anything but shy and introverted.
Sly recommends to Lank the notion of using some of the inherited money to buy an actual bar. This plotline becomes subservient when the men carry in Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a blonde white woman whose face and body have been bloodied through some kind of altercation. When she awakens, she is unsure, unkempt, and without her handbag. Caroline becomes a part of the household, taking on chores, and is obviously grateful for the opportunity to reflect and recover from a beating.
Morisseau has an acute ear for dialogue and her characters ring true. We fully know this family and their two valued friends. She waits too long, however, to create dramatic conflict within Detroit '67. It is not until just before intermission, well into the show's second hour, that the jarring implication something serious happening outside this row house reaches the theater audience. The play would take on unique distinction if the writer were able to heighten tension earlier.
Foremost dramatists of the twentieth century, like Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson, supply vital information or hints of turmoil during first acts of long dramas. These playwrights then examine and augment later on. Morisseau has an outstanding ability to depict reality (a forte along with characterization), but she neither provides sufficient foreshadowing nor creative invention. If the first act exposition is lengthy, the final hour provides more specific enduring moments. The ending is much more fervent and passionate.
Myxolydia Tyler, embodying Chelle, is wonderfully evocative as a complicated woman trying to establish her identity while caring for both those she treasures and newcomer Caroline. Johnny Ramey's Lank delivers his lines with potency. As Bunny, Nyahale Allie, until a pivotal late sequence, takes a spotlight wherever she stands. Sly, as played by Will Cobbs, is a valuable supporting character. Ginna Le Vine's Caroline initially has a fitting deer-in-headlights gaze, and later, she reveals further complexity; her personal story is essential.
Detroit '67, through March 10, 2019, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.