While Tuesday night’s performance of the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 was in progress, many in Charlotte, North Carolina were preparing for a large protest over the shooting death of Keith L. Scott by local police earlier that day. Regardless of the circumstances of this particular incident, entire communities continue to be disrupted and traumatized by patently discriminatory events; and the line between justified and unjustified use of lethal force has become blurred.
Detroit ’67 made its Off-Broadway debut in March of 2013 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Susan Stein Shiva Theater and was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Author Dominique Morisseau was awarded the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History by Columbia University. It is the first part of a three-play cycle entitled The Detroit Projects.
Morisseau, a native of Detroit, has made an admirable attempt to shine a light on the issues of racial and economic disparity that plagued the United States in the late 1960s, particularly the issue of police brutality and the targeting of black young men by law enforcement. The parallels to current events are clear, but we cannot help but think that there is an enormous missed opportunity here.
Morisseau’s characters are tropes, and the plot is riddled with clichés. This is not to say that this is not an important story to tell. Police brutality was a problem before this play’s setting, and continues to occur as you read these words. The problem is the lack of new examination.
The logo of a broken record and its motif in the story echo the repetitive torment of police brutality in the African-American community; but unintentionally, it also suggests that this play is simply restating and replaying what theater, literature, and film have already said — in the same way — for many years. The audience was always at least 10 minutes ahead of the play, and the upcoming plot points are clear before the first scene is over. Detroit ’16 may have been a more illuminating and thought-provoking story to tell.
Rachel Christopher, in her PlayMakers debut as de facto matriarch Chelle, shows strength through her body language, more than through her voice. She is a very physical actor, and effectively communicates her character’s growth over the curse of this story, though it took a couple of scenes for her to appear comfortable on stage.
Myles Bullock, as Chelle’s idealistic younger brother Lank, fills the stage with tremendous energy and passion. His charm and vulnerability makes one understand exactly why Caroline, played by Katy Castaldi, develops an interest in him. Castaldi is perfectly defenseless and exposed in the early scenes. Even though the play occurs over a week — not much time for a person to realistically recover from trauma — the play’s arc moves so swiftly that we hoped to see more strength from her by the end, and we are left with a less-than-developed character.
Charlie Hudson III, also making his PlayMakers debut, portrays flirtatious family friend Sly with ease and charm. His is the most naturalistic performance in the play, and he speaks with great confidence and tenderness. Some of the monologuing he’s assigned is a bit tedious, but that is more a writing and directing flaw than an acting one.
Tangela Large, as Bunny, makes an enormous impression in her first tour of the PlayMakers stage. As the play’s comedic relief (and what a relief she is), her job is important. She is written as a combination of the Black Best Friend and the Sassy Black Woman, tropes that would be frustrating to watch were she not so captivating an actor. Large is self-assured and full of chutzpah, but still offers the occasional look or gesture that suggests she is not impervious to trauma.
PRC guest director Lisa Rothe, assisted by JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, has a solid vision for this production. The elevated thrust of the Paul Green Theatre adds an element of isolation to the characters, and gives the apartment’s basement a defined shape, though we often wish we could be closer to the characters.
The biggest problem is pace. About 15 minutes could be cut just from lengthy dramatic pauses and self-indulgent transitions. With a number of monologues in the text, audience attention tends to drift, especially in the second act; and an increase in urgency could be helpful.
Lee Savage’s highly detailed scenic design fuses all elements together precisely. From the years of scuffing on the apartment floor to the aged cinderblock walls, the aging is realistic. Electrical outlets, a washer-dryer, and plumbing, fuse the world together. I’m not sure where he managed to find an 8-track player of such size, but I applaud the find. The inclusion of some abstract peripheral set elements, which appear later in the play, are interesting, but somewhat distracting.
Costume designer McKay Coble’s costumes are accurate to the period. They clearly indicate character and are not overly showy.
Xavier Pierce’s lighting design makes use of several practical lighting fixtures — always an element that lends realism to any set. Some of his bolder, more modern, choices are a little jarring — especially in the final scene — but unique and surprising cues are always welcome.
Sound designer Justin Ellington took on the task of mixing practical sound sources: a portable, operating record player, and a certainly non-operating 8-track stereo. The sound cues are sharp and mixed properly. Locations are clear and volumes appropriate. Sound effects from outside sources are also effective, though perhaps a tad understated. However, there were some missed opportunities for abstract sound design, especially during transitions.
PlayMakers Repertoty Company continues its mission of ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to the arts. Tuesday night’s performance of Detroit ’67 was the production’s All-Access Performance. In partnership with Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, two masterful American Sign Language interpreters were provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the show: Deborah Leisey and Chris Harney. An audio describer was also provided for those with visual impairments. PlayMakers also provides assistive listening devices, large-print and braille programs, tactile set tours, and open-captioned performances. (More information on All-Access performances at Playmakers can be found here.)
Detroit ’67 at PlayMakers is a well-designed production, with some strong acting moments and an acceptable plot structure. However, a slow pace and a predictable script keep it from being the powerhouse show that it could be.
This production lives in the PG-13 territory for language, violence, and intense emotional material.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-bottled-tensions-of-an-era-explode-in-playmakers-repertory-companys-detroit-67/Content?oid=5068374; Sept. 19th CVNC preview by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8127; Sept. 16th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) Editorial: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/09/opinion-night-at-the-theater; and Sept. 15th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment_more/another-time-and-our-time-play-recalls-detroit-in/article_8a2e9db6-7b53-11e6-bca1-bb5abfbc0f62.html (Note: You must subscribe to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 13th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/09/dominique-morisseaus-detroit-67-is-a-prize-winning-play-about-a-watershed-year-in-her-hometown/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DETROIT ’67 at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21-23, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27-30, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1, and p.m. Oct. 2 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up, except $10 students with ID.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
PRC’S AGE RECOMMENDATION: “This powerful, tuneful drama about a family caught in an explosive moment in American history contains adult language and themes that make it most appropriate for patrons 14 years and older.”
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21st, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25th, performances.
NOTE 3: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1st (for more information, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitor-info/accessibility-and-special-needs/).
Detroit ’67 (2013 Off-Broadway play): http://dominiquemorisseau.com/?portfolio=detroit-67 (official web page), http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/12567/detroit-67 (Samuel French, Inc.), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5531 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://actorstheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Detroit-67-Play-Guide.pdf (Actors Theatre of Louisville).
Dominique Morisseau (playwright): http://dominiquemorisseau.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/42109 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm7822943/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/dominique.morisseau (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/domorisseau (Twitter page).
Lisa Rothe (PRC guest director based in New York, NY): http://www.lisarothe.com/ (official website), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/lisa-rothe/ (PRC bio), https://www.facebook.com/lisa.rothe (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/olivetodd31 and https://twitter.com/CreativeVoix (Twitter pages).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.