These days, when we think of Detroit, it’s likely that the first thing that to comes to mind is the city’s recent bankruptcy, the largest municipal filing in U.S. history. But five decades ago, Detroit’s troubles were more social than financial. It was the summer of 1967 when the city erupted into deadly riots sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar in the predominantly African-American inner-city area. By the time the four-day riot was over, 43 people were dead, 342 were injured and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned.
The reasons behind the riot were of course far more complex than a simple raid. Brewing racial disharmony, rule by a white police fiefdom and socioeconomic inequality were the undercurrents that overboiled this already steaming kettle.
The riots are central in Dominique Morisseau’s play Detroit ’67. Central but unseen. This isn’t a play about the riots per se, but rather the men and women living in the community at the time. Specifically Chelle and Lank, who run an illegal after-hours club in the basement of their late parents’ house. The two may enjoy the same plethora of Motown hits that feature prominently in this script, but when it comes to their futures, the siblings aren’t singing the same tune.
“I come to theater for the entertainment, not for the pain,” said a disappointed woman behind me when she learned the play takes place during the Detroit upheaval. But she need not have fretted much. But even though it has all the elements for a socially charged story, Detroit ’67 instead plays like a mediocre light comedy with dull dashes of riot narrative sprinkled in.
All the action takes place in Chelle and Lank’s basement-cum-bar, a set by Larry Wesley thankfully not designed with too much late-'60s kitsch. When we first meet the siblings, they’re putting the finishing touches on the basement bar area so they can open it up for business. Wanting to play it safe, Chelle (Cynthia Brown-Garcia) sees the venture as a way to add a little extra to the inheritance she’s already earmarked to pay for her son’s college tuition out of town. The more risk-tolerant Lank (Kendrick “Kay B” Brown), on the other hand, views the basement venture as a stepping-stone to “being aboveground with the white folks,” where he can open a legitimate bar and stake out a claim for himself. Chelle’s sassy friend Bunny (Lakeisha Randale) is too busy leading Lank on to register an opinion, but Lank’s friend Sly (Joseph “Joe P” Palmore) already has himself in the mix. He and Lank have a line on a legal bar for sale, and they pitch the idea hard to Chelle. It doesn’t take much guessing to figure out which sibling’s dream of how to use the inheritance wins out and how.
Surprisingly, Morisseau writes all four characters as pleasant but fairly boring folks with tidy if not advantaged lives. Even sassy Bunny (why do all supporting female friends have to be sassy?), with all her flirting, is a solidly decent girl at heart. Sure, they all mildly gripe about the harassment they get from the Detroit police or the way white privilege keeps them from getting steady jobs or moving up in life, but nowhere do we feel the frustration or anger these characters must rightly feel. More problematic are their reactions when the riots finally do break out. Far from frenzied worry, anger, solidarity with the community, or even curiosity about what’s happening, Morisseau imbues her characters with barely anything stronger than a "wow, can you believe what’s going on out there" kind of reaction.
While Detroit burns, Sly continues to try to woo an uninterested Chelle by giving it his all in a comedic Four Tops singalong. Chelle and Bunny play Parcheesi while telling humorous stories about a first kiss. And Lank tries to get hot and heavy with Caroline (Whitney Zangarine), a white women he and Sly rescued and took back to his place after they found her beaten and confused in the wrong part of town. Director Eileen J. Morris may have the sirens blaring outside the basement apartment, but from the action on set all accompanied by toe tapping Motown tunes, you’d barely know the city was crumbling around them.
Morisseau finally does drop the riot into the laps of her characters when Lank and Sly’s newly bought bar (purchased behind Chelle’s back) comes under siege, first by rioters and then by the police brought in to quell the violence. But by this point, the drama has been so tensionless and the characters' reactions so weirdly out of step that no matter how hard Morris tries to extract big, tragic emotion from her cast, it creates not a scream but a whimper.
The cast do their best to make the thin script more substantive. As Lank, Brown tries to give us reason to believe that he’d be so smitten with a personality-free white girl he barely knows. He also gives it his all when called upon to weep in grief. Even though Bunny is a central-casting character, Randle plays the cheekiness with attractive grace. Brown-Garcia has a difficult time finding motivation for the milquetoast Chelle, but delivers a nicely intimate and loving scene between siblings. Caroline is the least likely character in the play, but Zangarine finds ways to keep her chronic evasiveness somewhat compelling. Palmore (stealing the show as usual) as Sly has the most success thanks to his ability to play the hell out of comedic scenes while also giving strong emotional energy to the not so funny moments he’s tasked with.
With so much trying going on up on the stage against such lackluster material, it’s a wonder we didn’t all start a mini protest of our own.
After the play, I didn’t see the woman who had commented on entertainment and pain to find out what she thought of it. My guess is that she was neither entertained enough nor given enough pain that she’d need to write home about either one. I’m sorry to say I’d have to agree.
Detroit ’67 runs through April 17 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For tickets, visit ensemblehouston.com or call 713-520-0055. $23-$50.