DETROIT '67 at Center Stage - A Riveting Production
It's a shame that Dominique Morisseau's DETROIT '67 had to be moved to Towson State University due to the renovations of Center Stage on N. Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. You may recall the unrest in the city a year ago regarding the death of Freddie Grey. Marches of protesters walked past Center Stage and the actors who were rehearsing the musical MARLEY could not help but notice. Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah even led the actors to the hub of the turmoil at the intersection of Penn and North Avenue and performed parts of the musical for the crowd.
It's just too bad the moving play DETROIT '67 could not have been presented where the action was in Baltimore last year.
What a coincidence that the musical MOTOWN was presented a few weeks ago at the Hippodrome and what a great show it was and what great music.
In a way, DETROIT '67 is a little like MOTOWN PART II. It is filled with the music of Detroit which began with the legendary entrepreneur Berry Gordy who in 1959 established Motown Records in a small home with the sign out front "Hitsville USA". I had the pleasure of visiting this landmark of music and it is quite inspirational to see where it all happened.
I was thrilled that Center Stage has brought the work of the young and talented playwright from Detroit, Dominique Morisseau. Kwei-Armah is very familiar with the play. He directed it at the Public Theatre in New York in 2013. He also directed her SKELETON CREW at the Lark Play Development Center.
According to Kwei-Armah, he chose the play "...not only because it is an amazing play by a talented writer, but also because I knew it would speak to our audience, here and now. At its heart, this is a play about family. And many in Baltimore can appreciate the importance of family support set against social unrest."
I first became familiar with Morisseau when I saw the superb production of her SUNSET BABY at the Rep Stage in Columbia. I was thrilled to see that Center Stage would be staging another one of her plays and I was not disappointed.
DETROIT '67 is based on actual events. On the morning of Sunday July 23, 1967 around 4 a.m., plainclothes police officers raided an underground night club (called a "blind pig") that was held in the basement of a home in the 12th Street neighborhood. What the police expected was a small gathering but instead found 82 people celebrating the return of two Vietnam veterans. Things quickly escalated from there and soon fires were everywhere. Over the following five days, state police, National Guard, and Army paratroopers were called in. The tragedy over five days took the lives of 43. Over 470 were injured and over 7,000 were arrested. 2,500 stores were looted or burned and 400 families became homeless. (Thank you Production Dramaturg Lauren Imwold.)
So, with that as a backdrop, don't be frightened away from a play that has much humor, superb music, and that you will remember always.
This is a co-production with the Detroit Public Theatre where it is headed next as part of their inaugural season as a professional theater company.
Much credit must go to Director Kamilah Forbes who has assembled a strong and talented cast. Her bio lists her as Associate Director of NBC's THE QIZ LIVE!. She has a deft hand of directing and her vision of this play shines through.
The play is set in the basement home of Chelle and Lank Poindexter who inherited the home from their deceased parents who also left them some money. They desire to turn their basement into a "blind pig", open it up to the public who will buy drinks and dance to Lank's newly purchased eight-track tape player machine. Much is made of Chelle's love of '45 records, even when they skip. Chelle has no idea how to turn the machine on!
As in A RAISIN IN THE SUN, Lank has his ideas with his friend Sly to open a legitimate bar using their inherited money. Chelle on the other hand desires to use it for the education of her son at Tuskegee.
These facts are enough to support the play. But not for Morisseau.
Lank and Sly bring home a beaten-up white women named Caroline who they rescue while unconscious lying in the road. OK...everyone is asking, "Why not take her to a hospital?" So did I. Well, they were concerned how it would look for two Black men carrying a disoriented and battered White woman to a hospital.
You can only imagine how Chelle thinks about this new development. Who is this person named Caroline? I won't divulge any more. But she does happen to help serve drinks and food when they entertain and thus Chelle lets her stay to recover.
There's one additional comedic character name "Bunny" who is Chelle's best friend and offers great comedic relief as she enters with huge gold earrings, high heels, and a short skirt.
The play has much to absorb. And thanks to a superb cast brings it home. Amari Cheatom plays Lank (like in Langston Hughes), Jessica Frances Dukes (an Obie Award-winner) plays the sexpot and funny Bunny, Brian Marable is Sly, Sarah Nealis is Caroline, and Michelle Wilson shines as Chelle. The Detroit native originated this role in the 2013 world premiere at New York's Public Theatre.
Michael Carnahan (Scenic Design) presents a great depiction of the basement turned nightclub, Dede Ayite (Costume Design) must have had a blast with the outrageous clothing from the era, Jen Schriever (Lighting Design) makes it work so well, and Alex Basco Koch deserves special mention for his projections on the back wall of the home depicting life outside during the five days of carnage. He also did the marvelous projections for Center Stage's MARLEY. Special kudos to Sound Designer/Composer Justin Ellington for the great music. I loved when the sound first came from the small eight-track-tape-recorder and then is blasted throughout the theater.
Congratulations for Center Stage for bringing DETROIT '67 to Baltimore during these turbulent times. It ends its run at Towson State University on May 8. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.
WEAA Radio is sponsoring a post-show discussion following the Sunday, May 1 performance at 2 p.m.