BWW Review: Blackfriars Theatre Explores Race Riots and the Civil Rights Movement with DETROIT '67
There are few forces more powerful than that of family, friendship, love and home. These forces are mightily strong under the best of circumstances, and become even more central to our existence in times of violence, oppression, and separation. Within the context of 20th century American history, the civil rights movement of the 1960's is probably the pinnacle of violence and oppression; it's this era that acts as the backdrop of "Detroit '67", which explores the bonds that connect us to both our friends and loved ones, but also the place we call home.
"Detroit '67", by Dominique Morisseau, is set in the Motor City's west side during the Motown era of the late 1960's when the airwaves were filled with the sounds of Marvin Gaye and The Temptations, televisions were dominated by images of black icons like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and major American cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Detroit were on the brink of explosion due to racial tensions. It's within this context that we're introduced to Lank (Laron Dewberry) and Chelle (Ashona Pulliam), a brother and sister who are running an illegal after-hours nightspot in their basement in a black neighborhood on the west side in order to make ends meet. Along with Lank and Chelle are Sly (Aceyon Owens), Lank's best friend and business partner who's helping Lank to realize his dream of "going straight" by purchasing a nearby bar; and Bunny (Tahina McPherson), Chelle's best friend and confidant. When Lank brings an incapacitated white woman (Caroline, played by Melanie McBride) back to the house late one night, their situation becomes immensely more complicated. Chelle reluctantly agrees to let Caroline stay if she pulls her weight by working in the basement--a decision she comes to quickly regret when she notices the chemistry between Caroline and her brother.
On the acting front, this production's small cast does an admirable job at bringing life and passion to a show with intense and historical themes. Lank is intense and magnetic, demonstrating once again that Laron Dewberry has the chops to be a leading man and to occupy difficult and layered roles. Aceyon Owens is a charismatic character actor whose Sly is both slick and comical, but also romantic and heartfelt. Ashona Pulliam, while a bit too flat in the show's quieter scenes, brings an impressive level of passion in her confrontations with Lank and Caroline. And Melanie McBride's Caroline is able to brilliantly toggle from a timid victim of domestic violence to a woman in love, someone who's trying to find a sense of safety and security in a world that feels like it's burning to the ground.
The most impressive aspect of Blackfriars' "Detroit '67" is the way in which it creates a feeling of grandiosity with only a small stage and a five-person cast, a testament to director J. Simmons-a Blackfriars regular-- and scenic designer Allen Wright Shannon. Through the use of sirens, flashing lights, the distant sounds of rioting, and powerful images from the civil rights movement, Blackfriars creates an aura that encapsulates the scale and sheer terror of the race riots of the 1960's. This ability to cultivate a feeling of enormity in what is effectively a blackbox theatre is a commonality in Blackfriars productions, and just goes to show that designers and creatives need not be limited by the physical space they're given to work in, and that big, powerful theatre can be made even in the tiniest of places.
As one gentleman noted in the talkback after Sunday's matinee, it's extremely heartening that organizations like Blackfriars are committed to telling stories like "Detroit '67" that shine a light on the historical struggles and injustices against people of color, especially during the turbulent sociopolitical times in which we're living. And while I don't think it's a flawless play from a storytelling perspective (the first act is about 15 minutes too long and the ending is a smidge unsatisfying), I commend Blackfriars for including important plays like "Detroit '67" in their season, and hope they continue to do so in seasons to come.
Blackfriars' production of "Detroit '67" is powerful and moving, an impactful story about race and the civil rights movement, but more importantly, about the powerful bonds we feel to our family and our home. It's playing at Blackfriars Theatre until November 3rd. For tickets and more information, click here.