Not quite Detroit’s Finest: ‘Detroit ‘67’ Bay Area Premiere at Aurora Theatre

Detroit '67 Bay Area premiere at Aurora - programme

“It seems like we can spend our money, but we don’t have a right to be there. Blacks do not have a level playing field anymore. Certain opportunities are not there for us. I never felt like we were being moved out before. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened.”
– Darnell Small, owner of Detroit’s Tangerine Room bar and restaurant,
NBC News: “Gentrification of Detroit Leaves Black-Owned Businesses Behind” (1 November 2015)

I’ve slowly-but-surely expunged social media out of my life over the past three years. I stopped logging into FB in 2015 and Twitter the very next year (I’ve never had an Instagram because I don’t hate myself… that much). Before I dropped out of Tumblr early last year, I remember seeing a meme saying something akin to “You know how you look up historical events and say to yourself, ‘If I were alive then I would have done X?’ Well, guess what? These are those times!” The fact that I can draw such distinct parallels between modern day and the youth of my parents doesn’t exactly fill me joy.

I also seem to recall an old interview with Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder from the late-‘90s/early-2000s. At one point he’s asked about Black music and describes the sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s as “the soundtrack to the revolution” (as opposed to early-‘90s hip-hop, which he called “a soundtrack without a revolution”). That soundtrack came from the Blackest parts of the United States – Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis – with one notable epicenter located in Detroit, home to the country’s thriving auto industry and the first world-renowned Black-owned record label.

Both the revolution – nay, evolution – and its soundtrack play important roles in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67. The inevitability of change and the maintenance of one’s identity are solid themes on which to build a narrative foundation. Unfortunately, the play itself doesn’t have the courage of its supposed convictions.

Detroit '67 Bay Area premiere at Aurora - set
Set by Richard Olmsted. Photo by Me.

It’s July 1967 and Detroit is a city on the verge. The only thing higher than the record temperatures outdoors are tensions brewing in the souls of the citizens. It’s in this combustible climate where we enter the childhood home of Michelle Poindexter at 12th and Clairmont. She shares the home with her brother Langston, having inherited the house from their recently-deceased parents. As a way to make ends meet, they’ve made the place into a popular neighborhood party spot.

Their inheritance also includes a considerable amount of money. Chelle wants to use it for financial independence, securing the roots they’ve set down in the city. Lank want to use it to buy an old bar, giving the family a regular income and the opportunity to forge their own future. But between looming riots outdoors and the sudden appearance of a bloodied young White girl in the Poindexter house, the siblings may see both of their dreams go up in smoke.

The last time I saw a play by Dominique Morisseau it was when I attended the opening night of Berkeley Rep’s world premiere for Ain’t too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Feel free to hit the Search for my review, but suffice it to say, I was unimpressed with Morisseau’s book for the production. Its epic ambitions wound up truncating and trivializing the lives and work of one of America’s most important musical acts.

She returns to her hometown of Detroit for this play (part of a series that serves as her answer to August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”). This time she wisely limits the action to one small group of characters and one particular historical event. Though that would ideally make for better character growth, it instead leads to some rather shallow characterizations. This is now the second play in a row in which Morisseau – a Black woman herself – creates Black women characters who are complete pushovers. Chelle has no backbone – agreeing to let the injured Caroline stay, despite knowing (and vocalizing) the dangers of doing so; being seduced by Sly after a few sweet words by him; ultimately rolling over after Lank uses the money for the bar – and her friend Bunny is essentially a non-character, there to provide occasional comic relief. The two men, Lank and Sly, are better fleshed out, but White girl Caroline is essentially a plot device with dialogue.

In fact, it’s with the introduction of Caroline that Morisseau misses the best opportunity to make a statement about, well, anything. Caroline loves Black music, but Morisseau emphasizes that she’s not a negrophile; Caroline writhes and dances like a seductive serpent, but she and Lank never even kiss; Caroline’s chaste “romance” with Lank has clearly put his life in danger, but neither of them suffer any direct consequences because of it. To summarize: Morisseau has written an interracial couple during not only one of the most volatile racial periods in both US history and amidst the backdrop of one of the most violent race riots in US history, but the playwright refuses to do or say anything about it.

Mind you, there’s still some pretty good stuff here – I loved the way Chelle and Lank’s dreams represent the diametric opposites of “Black success in America” and I got a schadenfreude glee watching White audience members cringe at the frequent use of the word “nigga” – but the introduction of Caroline is a narrative “put up or shut up” moment. Morisseau shuts up and it’s the audience’s loss.

 

Not helping matters is the mixed bag of performances and technical aspects. Some of director Darryl V. Jones’s staging was just confounding at times. The most egregious would have to be the face-off between Chelle and Caroline late in the show. Perhaps Jones just wanted the actresses to both be as viewable in the Aurora thrust as often as possible, but their movements make no sense at all. Neither moves as a reaction to the other’s dialogue or personal motivation, they move because they were clearly directed to move to that particular spot at that particular point. This problem disappears and reappears throughout the show.

Actors Halili Knox and Emily Radosevich seem to struggle the most with their non-characters. Eventually Knox has nothing more to give Chelle but a series of neck-rolls and glaring looks. I’ve seen Radosevich in a couple of shows this year, most notably as the lead in the #GamerGate-inspired Non-Player Character. Here, her problem is twofold: her character is written as a cypher and the actress plays her as too modern. There are just certain mannerisms Millenials have that would be out-of-character for Boomers. She also seems to struggle with giving the character any real inner fire.

Lack of inner fire has often been a problem for actor Rafael Jordan in the past, whose recent performances in Magic Theatre’s Grandeur and Cal Shakes’ Glass Menagerie both came off incredibly wooden. Here, he at least brings some life to his performance as Lank, but still struggles with performing passion or anger. Akilah A. Walker seems to at least have fun with the role of Bunny, which lets those of us watching have fun with her. Best served is veteran actor Myers Clark, who brings such electric life to the shallow role of Sly that everyone around him disappears.

Speaking of what’s around, the set design by Richard Olmsted is top-notch. As decorated by prop master Christina Bauer, the basement of the Poindexter house is nice to look at, even if doesn’t make the most sense for all the action to stay there. Kitty Muntzel must have had a great deal of fun adorning her cast in vintage clothes (in the Bay Area, there’s no shortage of places to find them), and sound designer Cliff Caruthers (with Elton Bradman) has another feather in his cap with the outdoor riot sounds of this production. Add in Jeff Rowlings’ lights and the technical reputation of Aurora productions is secure.

The paradox of this production is the fact that wasted opportunities are frequently cited as what the characters fear, yet the show itself is an incredibly wasted opportunity. It could – nay, should – have been a show about how the harsh realities of life can crush the intangibility of your dreams; about how the same racial unrest problems that plagued the US in ’67 continue to plague us 51 years later; about the repercussions that result when you pass a point of no return.

But that’s not this show. This is a show that pulls its punches. And when you’re trying to channel a raised fist of revolution, a pulled punch is the last thing you want to do.

GRADE:                                      C

Detroit ’67 is scheduled to run until the 30th of September at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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