Tall Tales/TIO Denver: "Detroit 67," A Review

“Detroit 67” is now up at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company through February 24, 2018. Tickets here. Our Denver theater critic, award-winning author Mark Stevens, reviews the production.

Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle (left) and Hasiea Gray as Bunny, courtesy Curious Theatre Company.

In the summer of 1967, Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed weekend drinking club.

The raid touched-off one of the most deadly riots in United States history. Only the 1863 New York City draft riots (during the Civil War) and the 1992 Los Angeles riots claimed larger numbers of people killed, injured and arrested.

The five-day battle in Detroit in the summer of 1967 ended up taking 43 lives. Some 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

“Detroit ’67,” Dominique Morisseau’s theatrical prism for the violence, is a basement. There’s a bar, a poster of Muhammad Ali and a giant drawing of a fist that is punching its way into the room. All the commotion, tension, and violence take place upstairs—off stage. (Or, in this case, up stage.) The basement feels like part sanctuary and part trap.

The fraying nerves of the street come tumbling down the stairs—a sturdy, hefty wooden staircase in the Curious Theatre Company Production—through dialogue and via the play’s main agitator, a white woman named Caroline who arrives unconscious in a bright white sheet, like a shroud. She’s carried down by buddies Lank and Sylvester, who rescued her from a bad situation on the streets, and lowered her onto a couch.

Anastasia Davidson as the bruised and bloodied Caroline (left), and Cajardo Lindsey as Lank. Courtesy, Curious Theatre Company.

The basement, where the entire play takes place, is below grade in a home recently inherited by siblings Chelle and Lank, who have very different ideas about how to approach the future.

Chelle is more day-to-day. She is proud, reserved, careful, and wary. She is happy to keep her head down.

Lank wouldn’t mind a change. Lank and Sly are cooking up plans to use some of the inheritance to invest in a street-level club. Lank, in fact, is willing to go behind Chelle’s back with his dreams.

As it is, Lank and Chelle are supplementing their income by running an after-hours dance and party club in their basement. The parties are pumped up with the help of classic Motown tracks so “Detroit ‘67” is punctuated by snippets from The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, among others.

The fifth member of the cast is the irrepressible Bunny. She is spunky, sexy and upbeat, unafraid to state her desires. She’s got wisecracks and insights to spare.

But it’s Caroline who really stirs things up. She is troubled and mysterious. Ironically, it’s the white woman who is envious of the relative apparent stability and comfort in the black lives of Chelle and Lank. Over Chelle’s general objections, Caroline is brought in to help run the underground, illicit bar. Caroline shares in the profits – at least until she can save up enough for a train ticket out of town.

Of course, complications abound—romantic, financial, social. “Detroit ‘67” is layered and rich. It crackles with topicality. Alas, the issues are just as relevant today, 51 years later. Sly’s news that the government is sending in troops echoes smack off President Trump’s threats to send in the military to quell urban violence in Chicago, as if a crackdown will change anything about the underlying conditions. This theme is underscored by the 45-RPM records and their tendency to loop and repeat. The fivesome are thrilled about their new eight-track machine, an alleged upgrade at the time.

One of the nifty choices Morisseau made was to set “Detroit ‘67” among a group of people who have choices to make—and the means to pull it off if they choose to do so. The play shines a powerful light on two drastically diverging paths for Lank, Chelle, Bunny and Sly—“Get Along” versus “Dare to Move Up.”

At Curious, Jada Suzanne Dixon embodies Chelle (Michelle) with the world’s troubles on her sleeve and she delivers a solid, nuanced performance. Cajardo Lindsey, another excellent Curious regular who left such a mark in the riveting “The Brothers Size,” gives Lank (Langston) credible drive and weight. As Bunny (Bonita), Hasiea Gray provides an easy, carefree spark and Frank Taylor Green gives Sly (Sylvester) a hip swagger. Anastasia Davidson’s Caroline (no nickname!) is the edgy stranger in a strange land.

Directed by Idris Goodwin on another amazing Curious Theatre Company set, “Detroit ‘67” zooms in on real lives of real people with real dreams. Those 43 lives lost in Detroit that summer weren’t looters or hoodlums or activists—if they were even that. On the day they lost their lives, they were people trying to do what we all do, figure out life and figure out what’s next, whether it’s big dreams or little hopes.

Is music the salve, escape or cure? Perhaps the script looks once too often to the tunes for an answer. An alternate script could make a persuasive case for more anger and darker hues, given what happens, to how this story concludes. But “Detroit ‘67” is absorbing from first groove to final, mournful plea.

More about Mark Stevens:

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Telluride Inside… and Out’s monthly (more or less) column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent.

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts, but he’s been a Coloradoan since 1980.

Mark has worked as a print reporter, ((Denver Post, Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News), national news television producer, (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour) and school district communicator. He’s now laboring in the new economy, listed under “s” for self-employed public relations exec.

Mark has published three Colorado-based mysteries, “Antler Dust”(2007), “Buried by the Roan” (2011) and “Trapline” (2014). He is under contract for a fourth book in the series.

For more about Mark, check out his website.

 

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Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s a print reporter, national news television producer and school district communicator. He’s now working in the new economy and listed under “s” for self-employed. Stevens has published two Colorado-based mysteries, Antler Dust (2007) and Buried by the Roan (2011). The third book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series is under production and tentatively slated for release in 2013.

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