Theater review by Raven Snook. Public Theater (see Off Broadway). By Dominique Morisseau. Dir. Kwame Kwei-Armah. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
Detroit’s tragic 1967 riots scarred the city and the nation, and have been namechecked in many a song, movie and book. Now playwright Dominique Morisseau uses the five days of turmoil—which resulted in millions of dollars in damage, thousands of arrests and 43 deaths—as the backdrop for her period domestic drama about race and life aspirations.
African-American siblings Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and Lank (Francois Battiste) run an illegal after-hours club in their home. When they inherit money from their deceased parents, they have different ideas about how to spend it. Chelle wants to help her son finish up at Tuskegee University, while Lank wants to open a legit neighborhood bar with his pal Sly (Brandon J. Dirden). But Lank’s chance meeting with an abused white woman named Caroline (Samantha Soule) sparks bitter battles between brother and sister, blacks and whites, and cops and civilians.
While the goings-on inside the claustrophobic basement are meant to mirror the tumult in the streets, instead of action, the audience gets anthropological debates. And while they’re impassioned (and, whenever De’Adre Aziza is onstage, hilarious), they don’t stir the soul. A big part of the problem is Kwame Kwei-Armah’s direction: Scenes often end abruptly, and the acting styles are all over the place. Detroit ’67 is part of an intriguing new partnership between the Public, Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre. Here’s hoping future productions show more punch than promise.—Raven Snook