Wednesday, February 10, 2016

DETROIT ’67 @ Karamu looks at the riots in the Motor City

February 1, 1960--North Carolina State University students protested when the administration wouldn’t let a black male’s name appear on the ballot for student body president.  May 15, 1962—Students at the University of Mississippi rioted over the lack of equal rights for black students.  April 13, 1964—Riots erupted in Los Angeles regarding discriminatory ways of how police treated African Americans.

March 13, 1965—Watts Riot because of cruel and unusual punishment by police toward African Americans.  July 18-23, 1966--Hough riots in Cleveland fanned by rumors, poor living conditions, scorching heat, and excessive politician intrusion and police over-reaction.  May 15, 1967—Detroit riots caused by police brutality and discrimination. August 4, 1967—Additional Motor City riots.  April 6, 1968—Rioting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Yes, the 1960s was an era of riots connected to the perceived or real treatment of African Americans.  Civil unrest continues until today.

What is more appropriate than for Karamu, the country’s oldest continuously performing Black Theatre, which is celebrating its 100 th birthday, to highlight Black History month, with Dominque Marisseau’s DETROIT ’67?   The script was awarded the Edward Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. 

Morisseau looks back at Detroit, Michigan in 1967.  Motown music is just getting started, the eight-track is replacing 45 records, and Chelle and her brother Lank are making ends meet by turning their basement into an after-hours joint. 

The city around them erupts and they are caught in the midst of the first of two Detroit riots of the year.  The period of time pictured in the play represented the most violent and brutal uprising in the 1960s. 

DETROIT ’67 is the first in a three-play cycle by Marriseau about Detroit, her hometown.   It examines sibling rivalry, interracial romance, and social history packaged in the world of Motown hits by the likes of The Temptations, Four Tops and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Chelle and Lank (named for Karamu alumni Langston Hughes) have recently inherited the family home.  He wants to open a “real” bar.  She, the more conservative and practical of the two, is leery about losing what they have. 

One night Lank and his best friend, Sly, come upon Caroline, a badly beaten white woman who is wandering the streets.  Afraid of the repercussions of two black men bringing a white woman to a hospital, they take her back to Chelle and Lank’s home. 

As she recovers, Caroline, refuses to say much about herself or what happened.  Eventually, Caroline becomes a major help in the illegal after-hours joint, and she and Lank start an affair.  Also present during much of the action is wisecracking Bunny. To tell much more about the plot would be a “spoiler alert.”

As for the play, itself, it lacks the depth and quality of such African American playwrights as the works of August Wilson (THE PIANO LESSON), Lorraine Hansberry (RAISIN THE SUN), Suzan-Lori Parks (TOPDOG-UNDERDOG), or James Baldwin (BLUES FOR MISTER CHARLIE). 

The dialogue is natural, carrying all the “right” sounds and word choices, but the plot lacks sparkle, high level conflict, and illumination.  Though it represents an important incident in black history, it doesn’t emotionally integrate the riots into the storyline.  Even with filmed interjections of the fires and bloodbath, and the tragedy that effects the characters, the horror remains emotionally “outside,” an arm’s distance away, not a present reality.

The Karamu production, under the direction of Oberlin College faculty member Justin Emeka, is well-paced and gets what it can from the script.  As is usually the case, Richard Morris’s set design helps give the right feel for the author’s intent, as does the lighting.  The sound design is less successful as the volume of the films of the riots is often hard to understand.  The film is not edited well.  The sounds of the riot are distant, not close enough to incite the feeling of potential danger.

The cast does a good job of developing their roles.  Phillia makes Chelle into a real person.  Unfortunately, she sometimes goes into an extremely high pitch, making for difficulty in hearing her words. 

Jameka Terri (Bunny) has a nice sense of comic idea development.  Ananias J. Dixon’s Lank, much like Walter Lee in RAISIN IN THE SUN, is a young black male who feels emasculated by the women in his life.  Dixon does a nice job of presenting the frustrated man. 

Brandon Brown creates a Sly who is nicely textured.  He has an excellent feel for comic timing.  Joelle Sostheim (Caroline) displays an understanding of her character.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  DETROIT ’67 lacks the plot and writing dynamics that make for great plays. It gets a better production at Karamu than the script probably is due.  For this, the director and cast get a great deal of credit.

DETROIT ’67 continues through February 28, 2016 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.