By Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media
It’s hard to call playwright Dominque Morisseau’s production of Detroit ’67, currently playing Denver’s Curious Theater, a fun look back at a time when race issues were the catalyst of civil unrest, police abuse, discrimination and corruption were a the sign of the times. So let’s just call it very entertaining. While often humorous, Detroit 67′, directed by Idris Goodwin, reminds us that we have not come all that far from a time when the color of your skin defined who you are as a human being and more often than not determined how successful you would become as an individual, if you allowed yourself to believe that.
The entire play takes place in the basement of the home of brother and sister, Chelle and Lank (nicknames for Michelle and Langston). They are just trying to live their lives and hustle a little extra money with their after hours club they have going on in their basement.
Sly (Sylvester) is Lank’s best friend and is trying to get Lank to invest in a real legitimate club, above ground. Lank and his sister Chelle have come into an inheritance left by their parents. Lank likes the idea of the club but Chelle, who is reserved and mostly serious, wants nothing to do with it and instead wants to save the money for security purposes.
Bonita is known as Bunny, she is friends with them all. Her bubbly, always positive, personality always lights up and energizes the room. The conversations are lively with the Black dialect unique to African Americans. The “N” is used freely and often. They use it to refer themselves and those in their community, never offensive but more as a term of endearment, for them. Sly has a thing for Chelle but she is careful and doesn’t let anyone get to close. The acting is “spot on” The audience is made to feel like a fly on the wall, peering over at the goings on of this group of people.
It’s Detroit 1967, the Motown sound is taking off. Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vendellas, The Miracles, The Temptations and many others are putting out hit after hit. Chelle loves playing all their music on the 45 rpm vinyl records and record player she owns. Problem is the needle always seems to get stuck in the groves repeating and skipping over the same bit of music over and over again until she does something about it. It is this soul music that is the glue that keeps these people and the play moving forward. Lank has used part of the inheritance money to buy the latest in music technology. An 8 track player along with several 8 track tapes with all the latest sounds. Chelle has no idea how to use it or if she even likes it, she prefers her 45’s
They are all aware of what’s happening outside their basement hangout. The police are harassing anyone and everyone of color, including them whenever they are out out the street. People are getting beat up by police everywhere in the black neighborhoods of Detroit and many are getting tired of it.
One night Lank and Sly show up to the basement with a young white woman, Caroline, no nickname for her as she is from outside their world and culture. She is bruised and battered and barely conscious. The are afraid to take her to the hospital as riots and looting have broken out in the streets of Detroit. They fear two black men with a beaten white woman will only be implicated in her injuries. They lay her on the couch to recover while they figure out what to do with her.
When Chelle goes down to the basement and finds a barley alive white woman she is none to happy. Lank explains that on their way home from one of the other after-hour clubs in the area they came across this woman stumbling in the street begging him for help. He couldn’t just leave her there like that he explains. An injured white woman in the basement of a black household in a Detroit ghetto with a rebellion by black Americans against a white establishment happening just outside their door. “Do you have any idea what could happen to us because of this?” Chelle asks her brother. As Caroline recovers Lank develops feelings for this white girl and she for him much to the dismay of Chelle. Caroline seems to have no past, no family, no friends. Who is this woman and what is she doing in a Black neighborhood. Caroline is able to keep it all a secret but only for a while. As Curious Artistic Director, Chip Walton, a Detroit native himself, puts it, “These are folks who want what they can’t have, who have what they don’t want, who impose limits on each other based on their own fears, who rebel and relent, who hold a dream in their hand for just a moment before it turns to smoke.
What ensues for the rest of the play is a series of events that challenges the audience to look at their attitudes about race and prejudice over the years. In his introduction of the play on opening night for the regional premier of Detroit ’67, Walton, told the audience he was somewhat embarrassed and ashamed that so little progress had been made in U.S. race relations in the 50 years since the Detroit race riots of 1967, “Sadly the more things change the more they remain the same”, he said, reminding the audience of George Santayana’s wisdom of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
43 people were killed, 342 injured and 1400 buildings were destroyed in a span of five days of rebellion and rioting that occurred in Detroit in the summer of 1967. As the program for the play tells it, “On the evening of the July 22nd an illegal party was being held in honor of two black soldiers who had returned from Vietnam. When the police raided the party and as police dragged people out of the building, a crowd grew. The frustrated crowd riled against the treatment of those being arrested, bottles were thrown and a skirmish broke out.” 700 national guard troops were called in to help support police efforts to quell the ensuing disturbances.
Detroit resident, Coleman Young, who went on to become the city’s first Black mayor said, ” At its core was the basic attitude that police were not there to serve the citizens of the black community but to beat them back; not to protect them but to discipline them; not to comfort them but to contain them.”
The program also reminds the audience that in today’s world the color of justice is bleak at best. 61 percent of those incarcerated in the U.S. are Black and Latino. While Blacks and Latinos make up 30 percent of the U.S. population 1 of 3 African American males and 1 of 6 Latino males will be incarcerated during their lifetime while only 1 of 17 white males will face incarceration.
Furthermore, on average people of color face 19.5 percent longer sentences than white people for the same crimes. During traffic stops people of color are three times more likely to be searched than white people. Black and Latino students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
Walton concludes, “Sadly, 1967 is just as much 2018. We are still struggling with race, class and gender division. The riots spark just as quickly. The prejudices and pains and jagged legacies we inherit continue to blind and stunt us. Luckily the art and music still helps us express what our words cannot.”
While it all may sound distressing, Detroit ’67 still offers hope that people can overcome those things that hold them down. That they can pursue their dreams no matter what. The audience on opening night was overwhelmingly white and older. They gave the play a resounding and long standing ovation, some wiping tears others laughing. It may be because this play has both a sad and happy ending. The gray haired woman sitting next to me said she loved the play adding, “its so sad that everyone has dug in their heels when it come to their attitudes on race., nobody wants to talk to one another”, she said. I added, “maybe its that nobody wants to listen either. We need to change that and productions like this can only help in opening up that discussion.”
This play is definitely worth seeing and believe it or not it was a lot of fun.
Detroit ’67 plays the Curious Theater at 1080 Acoma St. in Denver through February 24th. Visit www.Curious Theater.org for tickets and showtimes.