Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Playwright Dominique Morisseau was born in Detroit and her play Detroit '67, the first in her three-play cycle titled "The Detroit Projects," depicts the impact the riots had on a brother and sister and their friends in the area. While it isn't a perfect play, its local premiere in a co-production by Black Theatre Troupe and Tempe Center for the Arts has a gifted group of actors who inhabit their roles and an ending that delivers hope for the fictional characters.
Set just before the riots begin, the plot focuses on Chelle and her younger brother Lank who, with the help of their close friends Bunny and Sly, occasionally host late night, unlicensed parties in their basement in order to raise some extra cash. Chelle and Lank's parents recently died and left them the house and a $15,000 inheritance. Chelle wants to use the money to pay off the mortgage and for her son's education, but Lank is looking for something better and wants to use the money to open a bar with Sly. The siblings are planning to have another party when Lank and Sly find a young, injured white woman late one night and bring her back to the basement since she passed out and they are afraid to just leave her on the street. Lank tells Chelle that he saw a plea for help in Caroline's eyes when he saw her on the street and that's why he brought her home. But Chelle knows a white woman in a black house in the bad part of town can only spell trouble. Once the riots begin and the violence unfolds just outside their doors, the siblings and their friends find their lives forever changed.
Morisseau knows how to write realistic dialogue and create fairly three-dimensional characters, but at 2-½ hours, including intermission, and with repetitive moments and little drama in the first 30 minutes, it's too bad she didn't tighten the piece up to make it even more riveting and moving. Also, with one static set and only a cast of five there is a lot of time spent with the characters describing the action they witnessed outside, which only adds to the length and doesn't offer much drama since we are only hearing about and not seeing the events unfold. There are also numerous conversations between Chelle and Lank concerning their different opinions on how to spend their inheritance that never add to the similar ones we've heard previously. If Morisseau had trimmed those scenes, tightened the beginning, and shortened a few of the unnecessary moments it would result in a much more effective and faster-paced drama.
Director Ralph Remington has found a talented cast who create believable characters, but he also doesn't help with the pacing of this production which is a bit slow in parts. There is also a large screen on stage that could be used more effectively than just presenting a few short video clips at the beginning and an image at the end. Fortunately, his direction is spot on during the dramatic moments and the confrontational scenes, and Morisseau's ending, which is both emotionally rich and uplifting, is well acted and directed.
As Chelle, Lillie Richardson beautifully evokes the cautious and grounded woman who wants something solid in her and her family's life. Richardson perfectly projects strength and a hard exterior yet we clearly see in her steady performance the fear and uncertainty that is always just underneath Chelle's exterior. Calvin Worthen is equally as good as Lank, an ambitious man who wants more from life and is looking to build something for their future. The two create a natural bond as this close-knit brother and sister. Alison Campbell is quite good as the distraught Caroline, who feels safe in Chelle and Lank's home. While the role is somewhat underwritten, with just a few words Campbell allows us to understand who this mysterious, polite and appreciative woman is. Cornelius Williams is energetic and eager as the dreamer Sly, and Ashley Jackson is full of life and passion as the free-spirited Bunny.
Scenic designer David Catellano has created a realistic basement set design and Linda Ann Benson's costumes are period and character appropriate. Stacey Walston's lighting design works well to depict the various times of day, though her use of a strobe light for one moment in the second act seems a bit odd and out of place. The sound design by Derek Stevenson is quite good, especially in the various offstage sound effects of the riot outside and in providing clarity to the Motown music in the show, which is used as a way for the characters to find comfort in their lives and a distraction from the turmoil outside the basement door.
While Detroit '67 isn't as deep or profound in how it approaches social issues and racism as other plays that tackle the subject, the characters Morisseau has created are intriguing and the powerful and positive ending is quite moving. Over fifty years after the riots in Detroit, it still clearly resonates today with almost daily news of police violence against African Americans and other minorities.
Detroit '67, through March 17, 2019, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-350-2822 or at www.tempecenterforthearts.com.
Written by Dominique Morriseau
* Member, Actors' Equity Association