The summer of 1967 may have been the Summer of Love in San Francisco. But in Detroit, it was a summer of rioting, and that is where and when Dominique Morisseau’s powerful drama “Detroit ’67” takes place.
I was very impressed by Morisseau “Skeleton Crew,” a tense play about factory workers facing modern realities that Premiere Stages at Kean University presented last year. And I feel that “Detroit ’67,” another play that is filled with complex, three-dimensional characters trying to make the best of a difficult situation — and that is currently being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton — is just as good, or better.
“Detroit ’67” takes place in the home of Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and her brother, Lank (Johnny Ramey) — more specifically, in their basement, which they use as an after-hours juke joint. Lank (a nickname for Langston) wants to use the money they inherited from their parents to move up in the world by opening a legitimate bar with his best friend Sly (Will Cobbs), a charming numbers runner. Chelle, more conservative by nature (and a widow with a son who is attending the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama), doesn’t want to take the risk.
“This house and this life is all I need,” she says. “I don’t wanna take on nothin’ that could make us lose it.”
This conflict is so similar to one of the primary conflicts of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (which takes its title from a Langston Hughes poem) that you can’t not think of it, though much of “Detroit ’67” is unique.
First of all, there’s the rioting: Though we don’t actually witness any violence (the play never leaves the basement), we hear a constant stream of yells and sirens from outside. (A little too constant, I thought: Though there is some ebb and flow to it, it still seems too steady to be realistic.)
Second, there’s a wild card who joins Chelle, Lank, Sly and their fun-loving friend Bunny (Nyahale All): Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white woman whom Lank and Sly find one night in the street, wounded and disoriented, and bring home to heal, much to Chelle’s dismay. Lank and Sly sensibly think it’s too dangerous for Caroline to be out on the street, while Chelle — also sensibly, in her own way — is worried they could get blamed for whatever was done to Caroline.
Caroline recovers, and starts helping out at the juke joint, and a mutual attraction grows between her and Lank (that, again, Chelle is not happy about). Meanwhile, elements of Carole’s backstory are slowly revealed, until we finally get a sense of who she is, and how she wound up in the state that Lank and Sly found her in.
As I said, we never actually see any rioting. But the explosive violence of the time still, ultimately, takes a tragic toll on these five, who are just trying to weather the storm and, particularly in Lank’s case, embark on a better life.
The set design, by Riccardo Hernandez (though Morisseau is unusually specific about what she wants in her script), effectively conjures what such a informal juke joint might look like, with an ugly cement brick wall; strings of Christmas lights creating a bit of a festive feel; decorations like a photo of Muhammad Ali, a Detroit Pistons pennant and a black power fist on the wall; and even an amateurish picture of a girl (Chelle, as drawn by Lank when they were both children).
“Pops convinced Mama it was art, and that we’d laugh about it one day,” says Lank. “Chelle still ain’t laughed yet.”
Motown singles and other classics of the era are sometimes heard between scenes, or during them: One of Morisseau’s perfect symbols of the difference between Lank and Chelle is that he prefers a then-new 8-track cassette player, and she sticks to her old, scratchy vinyl.
“8-track player is a new breed,” Lank tells Caroline at on point. “My sister don’t get that. I try to tell her this is changin’ the way we hear music. And we got to change with it. You heard the difference? The cassette sound? Real smooth, wasn’t it?”
Change — about more important things than playing music — may be inevitable. But it’s not easy, or smooth, Morisseau seems to want to show, in the course of the play.
I won’t spoil the last scene for you, but will just say that Morisseau has come up with a stunning final sequence, both devastatingly painful but with a ray of hope for the future.
“Detroit ’67” will be at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 28; visit mccarter.org.