A city starts to unravel in intriguing ‘Detroit ’67’
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic November 17, 2013 2:32PM
Coco Elysses (from left), Kamal Angelo Bolden, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Tyla Abercrumbie are among the ensemble cast of "Detroit '67" at Northlight Theatre. | PHOTO BY MICHAEL BROSILOW
When: Through Dec. 15
Where: Northlight Theatre,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets : $25-$75
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission
Updated: November 18, 2013 8:20PM
It is easy to recount the timeline of events that turned this country into such a tinderbox of emotion and upheaval in the mid- to late 1960s. It is more difficult to believably conjure what it was like to live through it all — the Vietnam War, the assassinations, the violent eruption of the inner cities. Riots broke out in Harlem and Philadelphia in 1964, in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood in 1965, in Detroit in the summer of 1967, and then in Chicago in 1968.
In her play “Detroit ’67,” now in a winningly realized Northlight Theatre production, Dominique Morisseau looks at what many cite as the beginning of the Motor City’s downward slide.
She has set her story in the semi-finished basement of a working-class home at the epicenter of the chaos — Detroit’s near West Side — where a police raid of a popular, unlicensed, after-hours bar became the flashpoint of the riots. The owners of the house, Chelle (Tyla Abercrumbie, an actress of great radiance and emotional fervency) and her brother, Lank (the easefully intense Kamal Angelo Bolden), are running a little house-party operation of their own at the time.
In a very real sense, Morisseau has picked up where Lorraine Hansberry left off in “A Raisin in the Sun,” the 1959 drama that “Detroit ’67” director Ron OJ Parson staged earlier this season at TimeLine Theatre. Key to both plays is the opposing attitudes of two siblings. Chelle, a young widow and mother of a son attending Tuskegee University, is determined to hold on to the hard-won gains made by her parents. But Lank, ambitious and restless, wants to forge his own future, taking a risk by buying a night spot of his own with his pal, Sly (Kelvin Roston Jr., all mischief and hustle).
Things suddenly get far more complicated as Lank plays Good Samaritan one night and rescues Caroline (Cassandra Bissell), a young, badly battered white woman he spots staggering on the side of the road, and brings her home. Chelle and her high-spirited friend, Bunny (Coco Elysses, supplier of the play’s raucous comedy), know that Caroline will only cause difficulties for this black household. Nevertheless, Chelle nurses her and Lank falls for her. Then, just as Lank and Sly complete their business deal, all hell breaks loose on the streets, the National Guard is called in, and the casualties mount.
With the sounds of the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and others coming from a record player, Parson and his actors create a wonderful sense of community. But while Morisseau wants Caroline to remain something of an enigma, the character feels both underdeveloped and too much of a plot device.
“Detroit ’67” is the first entry in a planned trilogy, “The Detroit Projects.” We know what has happened to that city, but just how Morisseau will get us there is intriguing.