Monday, December 09, 2013

'Detroit '67' Doesn't Quite Burn, but Bristles With Tension As It Brings History Home -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Detroit '67
A new play by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru December 15

I was going to start this review by saying that I've never lived through a riot. But that's not entirely true.

In 1992, I was residing in Los Angeles—albeit up in the San Fernando Valley—when riots erupted following the acquittal of LAPD thugs in the beating of Rodney King. Although the protesting, looting, violence and burning never came near my apartment in Encino, I can't deny some moments of palpable tension in following the action on TV. Not least because it occurred to me the rioters would've made a more pointed statement had they infiltrated the tonier white areas, rather than merely causing destruction in South Central LA.

In Dominique Morisseau's new play, Detroit '67—centered around riots in that city in that year—there is palpable tension as riots erupt, fires blaze, beatings (by cops) ensue and National Guard tanks roll through town. Except that in Northlight's current production we never see any of this, other than on a TV monitor that is part of a lobby display.

I don't have any defined, or likely viable, suggestions for how the play could have been written or staged differently. And as my @@@@ rating connotes, I actually liked it a good deal while gaining insights into events with which I was largely unfamiliar.

Yet in confining the onstage action to the basement of a Detroit home near where the riots occurred, Morisseau—and a cast of terrific actors—artfully gives the audience a sense of the riot in human terms, but stops short of ever making us really feel like we're in the midst of it, or in acute danger.

Directed here by Ron OJ Parson in just the drama's second ever staging, Detroit '67 is based in the home near 12th & Clairbourne shared by grown siblings Chelle (Tyra Abercrumbie) and Lank (Kamal Angelo Bolden) after the death of their parents. As a means of income, they—aided by friends Sly (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Bunny (Coco Elysses)—host parties in their basement featuring much great Motown music, which not incidentally was being created just blocks away.

Many wonderful recordings accompany the narrative, initially via Chelle's cherished Motown 45s, but with the arrival of 8-track tapes early in the play serving as a metaphor for Lank's ambition to move forward.

Not so unlike the character of Walter Younger in A Raisin in the Sun—a play I recently saw for the first time in a TimeLine Theatre production also directed by Parson—Lank, whose full name of Langston Hughes Poindexter also ties him to Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1950s play (the title comes from a Langston Hughes poem), burns with a desire to reach beyond his current station in life.

As in Raisin, the money that Lank wants to invest—with Sly, to open a new bar—comes from a shared inheritance, and his plans meet with resistance, here from his sister Chelle, who (like Walter's wife Ruth in Raisin) thinks being conservative with the money is much more prudent than a risky venture with more than a degree of sketchiness in its details.

But despite the echoes, Detroit '67 is far from a re-tread of A Raisin in the Sun. And the acting done by Abercrumbie and Bolden, in particular, is truly terrific; one acutely appreciates the affection that accompanies the siblings' different opinions and outlooks.

As Sly and Bunny, Roston, Jr. and Elysses are also stellar, and the fifth cast member, Cassandra Bissell, capably handles a role that is among the things about this work that could likely use some re-working.

Bissell plays Caroline, a young white woman who Lank and Sly find beaten to a pulp on the street and bring to the seeming safe haven of the basement.

I understand Morrisseau wanting to broaden the perspectives her play brings to the riot, and Caroline has enough subplots of her own to justify her character being part of the story, but there is something that feels inauthentic and implausible about her backstory and the way she is woven in.

Again, I don't have a ready solution and Morisseau is clearly a gifted writer who likely tried various ways to work a character such as Caroline into the plot. But she likely needs to keep tinkering.

There are also some issues with the play's structure, with too many "lights off" moments that suggest the first act has ended, only for it to continue.

Also, without wanting to reveal too much about what happens—though you only have until Sunday to catch this play in Skokie; take advantage of Northlight's day-of-show discount tickets for just $20 like I did—while the riot does have direct consequences on Chelle, Lank, Sly, etc., the single set-piece of the basement kept me too removed from truly understanding what prompted, sparked and stoked the riot.

And not everything about the plot and the show's pacing perfectly congeals at this point.

But while Morrisseau and whoever stages this play next have some work to do to make Detroit '67 approach the intensity of the event it chronicles, there is already much here to applaud and many in the Sunday matinee audience bestowed a well-deserved standing ovation.

Including me.

Detroit '67 may not yet be a fully formed play, but in providing valuable historical perspective—especially for just $20—it is more than worthwhile.

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