On November 19, 1967, Motown supergroups The Supremes and The Temptations, joined forces on the Ed Sullivan Show for a performance that is now the stuff of legend. Motown was a global sensation, and Motown: The Musical's upcoming Broadway debut is just one piece of evidence that the world is still listening.
But what did Diana Ross sound like to an African-American family trying to drown out the sound of tanks barreling down the street just four months prior to her historic Ed Sullivan performance? Who knows what David Ruffin sounded like from an old record player in a rundown Detroit basement, just miles from Motown's headquarters? These are the pieces of Motown's history that only Detroiters can recall, and that Dominique Morisseau hopes to shed light on in her new play at the Public Theater, Detroit '67.
"I'm not sure if Detroiters had a sense of how the rest of the world was feeling [Motown]," Michelle Wilson, a Detroit native and the lead actress in Detroit '67, told TheaterMania. "It's not like The Temptations were singers on a pedestal. The performers of Motown were still living in the community. They would go on tour, but they would come home."
This is certainly not to say that the familiarity of Motown artists diminished their impact on the city. "They give voice to this feeling and the passion that is Detroit," Wilson said. Morisseau, also a born-and-raised Detroiter, took this voice and weaved it throughout her play, which she affectionately calls a "love song" to her hometown. It's a love song that also paints a picture of one of the most painful periods in the city's history.
Detroit '67 takes place during the infamous Detroit race riots. The violence began on July 23, 1967 after white police officers raided a black neighborhood's unlicensed after-hours bar, known as a "blind pig." The raid, during which the police force attempted to arrest 82 people holding a party for two returning Vietnam veterans, triggered the black community's frustration with the police department's frequent, and often brutal, abuses of power. Shootings, looting, and arson ensued for five days, making this riot one of the deadliest and most destructive in American history.
Morisseau's play follows a black family living in Detroit during this tumultuous time of political and social upheaval. Chelle, a widowed mother in her late 30s, and her younger brother Lank turn their basement into a blind pig to earn money to help put Chelle's son through college. Their close friends Bunny and Sly help set up the joint. The four partners run into trouble when a white woman named Caroline stumbles into their lives just as the city begins to explode into violence. The music of Motown is the one thing that remains a constant presence as the rest of their world seems to dissolve into chaos. It is both the money-making fuel for their makeshift bar and a sound that simply pervades the air, constantly pulsating through Chelle and Lank's two-story Detroit home as the riots rage on outside.
A self-proclaimed "'80s baby," Morisseau did not write the play from firsthand experience . " was really my parents' year," she said. Still, growing up in Detroit around those who did experience the violence of 1967, she was well aware that the riots marked a significant turning point in Detroit's history. "This is an era that changed the city's landscape…and I wanted to have a deeper understanding of that time and what it was about that year that was so explosive and that created such rebellion in that city," she said.
Wilson, who plays the role of Chelle (a character that Morisseau wrote specifically for her), also grew up hearing stories about what it was like living in Detroit during that time. "The riots were always this ominous thing," she said. "Even as a child, I knew it was profound. Hearing stories of tanks coming down the street. It was always this large looming experience for Detroiters."
Yet, in the center of this ominous experience we find the sounds of Motown. "I've always thought about 1967—How Malcolm X had been killed—How Martin Luther King was still alive—Or a certain Motown song came out. But I never thought about those things together." For the playwright, connecting these dots was the key to unlocking the door to this era.
"Motown gave us a language of love…[Detroit had] a need for the music to speak for us and get to the core of the love that we're looking for…in our families and in our city," Morisseau said.
All of Morisseau's characters find themselves speaking in the language of Motown at one point or another throughout the play. "The music is there to enhance [the characters'] ability to communicate with each other," she said. "[It] gives them permission to cross boundaries that the characters can't themselves cross."
In a piece that so heavily relies upon the communicative powers of music, it's appropriate that Morisseau calls the play a "song." Her goal is for this song to speak not just to Detroiters, but to people of all different upbringings. "The core of this story is about family," she said. "What keeps family together and what keeps a community together."
Motown was this unifying power in the city of Detroit, which could have easily been torn apart part by the destructive and polarizing riots of 1967. "Motown made Detroit but Detroit made Motown," she says. "There's something about the art that can be made from the struggle. The need to stand before Berry Gordy and get that song heard meant something. It opened up possibilities for work and dreams coming true." In the midst of what could have felt like complete darkness, Motown provided Detroiters with a light at the end of the tunnel, a sense of pride, a source of comfort, and a voice in a world intent on silencing them.
"When the world is falling apart, the music saves your life," Morisseau said.
Detroit '67 is a Public Lab co-production with the Classical Theatre of Harlem. Following its run at the Public Theater, it will move uptown to the National Black Theatre, running from March 23 through April 14. For more information about tickets to Detroit '67, click here.