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Detroit '67

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michelle Wilson and Francois Battiste.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Had Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson collaborated on a play, the resulting work might have looked a lot like Detroit '67. Dominique Morisseau's new play at The Public Theater, currently being presented as part of the company's Public Lab developmental series in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre, combines the optimistic humanism of the former with the skeptical and uncompromising grittiness of the latter to fashion an evening that both thrives on illusions and denies their very existence.

There's every reason to believe that this shouldn't be possible, or that at the very least such worldviews should not fuse into something worth watching. And, certainly, there are times when Morisseau and her director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, can't achieve the precise synthesis of feeling and action they're aiming for. But at its heart, this is a play that realizes, as Wilson's and Hansberry's did, that the African-American experience in the 20th century could be at once funny, poetic, and profound.

All those traits are on display soon after the lights go up on Neil Patel's set: an unfinished basement, in the city and year of the title, dressed up to look like an apartment. We're introduced immediately to Chelle (Michelle Wilson), an almost-middle-aged black woman facing a string of challenges. Having lost both her parents (her father died six months ago), she must manage the house and the money they've left behind, while looking after her younger brother, Lank, who's moved out of his own apartment and back into the house with Chelle, and making sure her son finishes the studies he started at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Chelle is a realist: the type of woman who's more interested in hanging on to what she has than in taking risks. Lank (Francois Battiste), however, is always looking to move to a better place than where he is. He thinks he's found an ideal opportunity in a bar he wants to buy with his friend Sly (Brandon J. Dirden), just the thing people need to forget their struggles with poverty and the Vietnam War they're convinced is just a lottery or two away from wiping them all off the planet.

Then he encounters someone who's barely alive herself: Caroline (Samantha Soule), a young woman bruised and barely able to stand he rescued from a street corner while surveying his future business. After bringing her home and nursing her back to health, he agrees (against Chelle's objections) to let her work for him for a week and earn the money she needs to reclaim her life. And during that time, of course, she and Lank grow dangerously close.

But Detroit '67 is not about that relationship at all; despite Soule's fine performance as the tortured woman, in fact, Caroline exists only to help us better understand the competing outlooks of Chelle and Lank. Their ongoing disagreements, about what their future should be and how much of it they should be allowed to make for themselves, mirror the rioting that is smoldering (and, by the end of the play, full-on blazing) just outside their home. The only conflict that matters is whether Chelle will get her way and preserve what they've been able to accumulate, or whether Lank will acquire it for himself and make it grow beyond even his brightest dreams.

That Morisseau keeps you guessing about the eventual outcome until the final scenes is no small achievement—though she bows to certain inevitabilities in the construction of her play, what she produces is never predictable. And because the characters, who also include Chelle's sassy friend Bunny (played with an unquenchable spark by a magnetic de'Adre Aziza), are so believable and well rounded, you feel from beginning to end that you're watching real life, in all its myriad complexities, unfold before you.

Key to this success are the actors, who have no trouble crafting colorful performances from the building blocks Morisseau has provided. Especially good is Wilson, in the Ruth Younger role, who powerfully projects Chelle's dignity and rage as circumstances and the city collapse around her. Battiste is likewise a winner, successfully masking Lank's strength with the societal helplessness of Wilson's greatest antiheroes. Only Dirden suffices without shining, though it's difficult to do more with a man who serves as little more than a sounding board for Lank's views.

Sly highlights one of the major weaknesses in Morisseau's writing. She has a tendency toward deploying expedient solutions to more complex dramatic problems, using Sly and Bunny to elicit certain qualities from Lank and Chelle without giving them firm foundations of their own to stand on, and the tangled web of half-hearted romances between them does not cut it. Caroline is also distractingly schematic, knowing more than she obviously should about certain events, and leading everyone into certain plot points they'd be better off discovering organically.

This, then, is a two-character play that has three more people in it than it needs, and that excess prevents it from being a classic work in its own right. But what's good in the writing heralds Morisseau as an artist worth following and supporting, so she can build on the framework she's established here. Morisseau has already started construction on two plays to follow this one in a trilogy that explores the theatrical potential of her hometown. If Detroit '67's sequels prove as good as it does, the search for the next Wilson or Hansberry could nearly be over.

Detroit '67
Through March 17
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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