The Public LAB offers up strong performances in a fitting tribute to the Motor Town.
"If you drink it back in three sips, it goes down smoother than oil," says Caroline, a character in the Public LAB's Detroit '67, describing the proper way to finish off a Bali Hai cocktail. Having never heard of a Bali Hai, I can't speak to the accuracy of those instructions (from a quick Google search, I've gathered it's a concoction that makes you think that rum, brandy, and champagne belong in the same glass). But if the pleasure of ingesting the unsavory era depicted in Detroit '67 is any indication, I'd gladly make playwright Dominique Morisseau my happy hour spirit guide.
Detroit '67, a co-production with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre now playing at the Public's intimate Shiva Theater, is set during the five July days of the infamous 1967 Detroit riots and follows five fictional characters living at the epicenter of the violence. According to the history books, the riots began in the early-morning hours of July 23, 1967, in a black Detroit neighborhood after police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar, known in those days as a "blind pig." With the black community seeing this as another flex of the government's bigoted and tyrannical muscle, racial tensions reached their breaking point. Arson, looting, and sniping filled the city for the next five days, leaving 43 people dead, 388 families displaced, and 2,509 stores looted or burned.
Thus concludes today's lecture.
If the name Detroit '67 makes you think you're in for a staged reading of a PBS documentary, your reservations will melt away as soon as you pass through the theater doors to the "Bop bop soo-be-do-wa's" of the Velvelettes. Rather than a recounting of the gruesome historical event in their play's title, Morisseau and director Kwame Kwei-Armah have developed a production that resonates clearly as a celebration of the people and the spirit of Detroit. The first Detroiter we meet is Chelle (Michelle Wilson), a strong black woman in her mid-thirties, who immediately endears herself to us as she opens the play bickering with a record player that seems to have as much Detroit sass as she does. It skips as she tries to sing and dance along to The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" while she straightens up the unfinished-yet-homey basement in her two-story childhood home. She lives here with her younger brother Lank (Francois Battiste), who recently moved back in after their father (their only surviving parent) passed away. Designed by Neil Patel, the basement serves as both the vessel for all of the play's action and a canvas that displays Chelle and Lank's family history. A looming black power fist painted on the back wall contrasts what we later learn to be Lank's childhood attempt at a portrait of Chelle, which sits innocently by its side.
Chelle and Lank operate a blind pig out of this basement, with help from their friends Bunny and Sly, to make enough money to put Chelle's son Julius through college. Bunny is masterfully played by the loveable De'Adre Aziza, who fully inhabits her fast-talking, sexually charged character. She offers both Chelle and the audience comic relief while maintaining a sense of grounded compassion that keeps her from spiraling off into the realm of caricature. Her performance almost makes us forgive her mile-high hair and loud costumes that occasionally teeter into such territory. The charming Brandon J. Dirden also strikes a nice balance as Lank's best friend, Sly, who maintains his sincerity and "good guy" status even through his cloying flirtation with "Sweet Chelle" — as he likes to call her.
Though bonded by blood, Lank and Chelle approach life in Detroit in completely opposite ways. Aptly portrayed by Battiste, Lank is a bright-eyed, ambitious young man who wants to build a better life for himself and for Chelle. He wants to use his parents' inheritance to invest in a licensed bar with Sly, which they plan to furnish with a state-of-the-art eight-track player. Chelle, meanwhile, lives life much more defensively, always trying to protect what she has rather than risk her family's well-being to strive for an elusive "something more." She even rejects the new eight-track player in favor of her old scratched records in an attempt to keep life as static as the paintings on her basement walls. Wilson offers a wonderful performance as this maternal steady hand. She expresses a silent strength that we only appreciate in those few moments that she loosens her death grip on life. And it doesn't take long for her to learn that her basement's decorations may be the only thing in her life that she can control.
A random turn of events lands a distraught young white woman named Caroline (Samantha Soule) on Chelle's basement couch. We don't find out until later what circumstances led her there, but in an effort to prevent spoilers, I'll say that they bring trouble into the house — especially to Lank and Sly as they venture out into the heart of the riots that have just erupted. Complicating matters further is the emotional bond that develops between Lank and Caroline during her stay, adding a little Romeo-and-Juliet flavor to the mix. As the most mysterious character, Caroline is also the most ambiguous. This makes Soule's performance all the more impressive, having coaxed the tiniest seed of a character into full bloom. The soul-bearing scenes between Soule and Battiste, which could easily come across as awkward or out of place for two people who met just days ago, instead seem vibrant and organic.
The character responsible for holding this whole story together, however, is the music of Motown, which Morisseau weaves seamlessly throughout the plot. It's what lures customers to the makeshift basement bar; it's what forges the unlikely bond between Lank and Caroline; and it's what each character turns to for comfort when life beyond the basement walls spins out of control. Morisseau offers up Motown as a common meeting place for all people, not just Detroiters. Outside of Detroit, the songs — like the cocktails — might be different. But even if you don't listen to the Four Tops or toss back Bali Hai's, you should still heed Morisseau's sage advice: If you want to take on the world, it's best to chase it down with a song and a dance.