No matter the hardship, no matter the victory, it seems there has always been one constant in the Black community: music. In Detroit ‘67, a new play at the Public Theater in NYC, playwright Dominique Morriseau’s characters are holed up in their small home surviving the worst of the Detroit riots of 1967. While the city around them is burning down amid crooked cops, racism and politics, siblings Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and Lank (Francois Battiste) and their friends Bunny (De’Adre Aziza) and Sly (Brandon J. Dirden) manage to carve out a slice of happiness by holding basement parties set to none other than Motown’s greatest. But this production is not just about the soulful stylings of David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells and The Temptations. It centers on the riots and siblings who spar over its significance.
On one side, there’s Lank who aspires to use part of the family’s inheritance to, with the help of Sly, buy a local bar. “Detroit could be some kind of Mecca. We need to get some business of our own…be aboveground. If we don’t buy it, there won’t be nothing for colored people to own,” he offers. His older sister Chelle vehemently disagrees and would rather keep the money in the bank for her son’s college tuition and future.
The clash is the crux of the story until an unplanned houseguest shows up and introduces a whole other set of issues with which Chelle is forced to contend.
For her part, Chelle is afraid to take a gamble on life’s uncertainties. Good-time Sly encourages her to release her fears, but thanks to the chaos unraveling around the city, their slow-brewing connection comes to a sudden halt.
Chelle’s other ally is Bunny, uproariously played by rising star De’Adre Aziza who is best known for her Tony-award nominated role in Passing Strange. A modern-day Wilona Woods (of hit television show Good Times), Bunny provides comic relief, sex appeal and girlfriend camaraderie to the all-too-serious Chelle. “On my way over here, the pigs [cops] stopped me to ask what my plans were for the night. They told me to get my ass home and stay home,” she shares matter-of-factly. In spite of the turbulent times around her, Bunny – like Sly – finds a way to laugh, and dance, her troubles away.
In the end, Chelle learns to do just that. With her hands in the air and eyes closed, she sways to The Four Tops’ “Reach Out”, letting the music take over:
Now if you feel that you can’t go on
Because all of your hope is gone
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’
Reach out for me…
I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through.
(Detroit ’67 is presented in association with The Classical Theater of Harlem and The National Black Theater. The show will move uptown for a run at National Black Theater beginning March 23 and ending on April 14.)