Detroit ’67, by Dominique Morisseau, is the story of a tight-knit group of working-class black people—Chelle and Lank, brother and sister, and their friends, Bunny and Sly—who live in a deeply segregated Detroit. Their lives are interrupted and, ultimately, forever changed by the riots that take their community by storm and by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Caroline, a young white woman whom Lank takes in after having seen her bloodied on the street. In a deep, two-act performance on the stage of the Philip Chosky Theater this fall, the play explored the complexity of interracial romance in a largely segregated country, the animosity between police and economically suppressed communities (in this case, a primarily black community), and finally, the power of family and community to persist under these and other pressures.

Visiting director Kym Moore, a professor at Brown University, said she was drawn to this opportunity in large part because she wanted to provide black students with a supportive environment.

“I met the designers, the actors, and at that point I just couldn’t back out,” she said. “I wanted to do it for the students.”

Regarding the play itself, she explained: “The thing that got me into the work is that Dominique Morisseau described the piece as a love song to her city and to her people. Your job as a director is to find the soul of the play, and the soul of this play is very beautiful.”

The soul of this play may well lie in the characters Lank and Chelle, the siblings at the center of the world of Detroit ‘67. Chelle’s conservative nature juxtaposed with Lank’s optimism seem to embody the spirit of the community and time that Morisseau writes about.

Senior actress Gena Sims played Chelle, a woman resistant to change. She explained that Chelle—who lives in the dangerous environment of an American ghetto, where crime rates are high and police presence is often destructive—has managed to raise a son and send him to college.

“Chelle maintains a stable environment in an unstable world. She has a conservative attitude because change can mean her entire world crumbling,” Sims said.

Another character with a powerful presence in the play is Bunny, a party promoter and dear friend of Chelle’s, brought to life by senior Safiya Harris. She describes Bunny as charming, fierce, powerful, independent, and self-assured.

“Bunny is a bit of a peacemaker,” Harris explained, “she keeps peace between other characters without losing honesty. She’s a bright presence both for the audience and for other characters.”

Harris conjectured that Bunny’s moment of vulnerability, when she is alone onstage and trying to cope with the destruction occurring around her, hits harder because she acts as such an optimistic presence throughout the piece.

Illuminating the world of Detroit ‘67 even further was the work of the creative team. Costume designer Michelle Li outfitted the performers in actual vintage articles of clothing from the 60s. The pieces came from vintage stores in New York and Pittsburgh, as well as from online stores such as Esty and eBay. She emphasized that all the costumes in the show have patterns, recounting a conversation with Moore who described that many prints that are popular in the African American community derive from West African patterns. These patterns are not only intended to be aesthetically pleasing, but also they are also symbolic of protection—a stand-in for armor.

While Detroit ‘67 touches on universal themes of hope, love and determination. It also acts a teaching moment for the audience. Both Sims and Harris mentioned that they were never taught about the riots in public school. Sims emphasized how surprising it was to learn about the government’s militaristic reaction to an issue that only required de-escalation. Harris noted that she learned more about the cultural significance of Motown as one of the first black industries to really get credit from mainstream American society.

But the play is not only a history lesson. It also shed light on an issue very much at the forefront of American Society today: police violence against black communities.

“So many of the issues addressed in the play are still modern issues, but I have to commend the people of Chelle’s generation for persisting and ultimately achieving more freedom for people like me,” Sims said.

While the turmoil at the heart of this play continues to resurface in modern riots such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, the struggles of those who came before us are crucial to understanding our position in history. Detroit ’67 brings to life people who otherwise may have only been statistics and, even against the backdrop of chaos, celebrates the lives of these characters and the power of community.

 

Written by Pravin Wilkins