Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Detroit '67
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The Phantom of the Opera and Jeanie's reviews of A Chorus Line, Savage Wealth and Cabaret

Halili Knox and Akilah A. Walker
Photo by David Allen
There is something both unbearably sad and thrillingly hopeful about Dominique Morriseau's Detroit '67, which just opened in a magnificent production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. Because it is set, as the title indicates, in 1967 (a tumultuous year for the Motor City), we in the audience know what kind of progress has been made toward racial equality (very little) and police brutality toward the black community (even less). If the characters in this tightly constructed story could see 50 years into the future, would the killings of Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jr. (and far too many others) surprise them? Given the hope at the time—the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was only a year away, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive—would they have thought more headway might have been made in the fight against injustice? Or would it feel like a logical continuation of centuries of discrimination and hatred? But Chelle (Halili Knox) and her brother Lank (Rafael Jordan) have no crystal ball—only the moment in which they are currently living.

And what a moment—their father has passed a few months earlier, and Chelle and Lank are about to receive their modest inheritance. The Motown sound is blowing up the airwaves (and Chelle's scratchy collection of 45s), and Detroit is a tinderbox, with the white power structure pressing its boot firmly on the necks of the black community. But they have dreams. Chelle's son is doing well in college, and Lank has a secret plan to open a business in order to build something they can truly call their own. And 8-track tapes have been recently introduced, promising to eliminate Chelle's frustration with her skipping recordings of The Temptations. Lovingly patting the tape machine he's just bought, Lank claims it will be "the answer to all our problems."

But in the meantime, there's a party to plan—a neighborhood basement bash that Chelle and Lank are throwing to bring some extra cash into the family to help pay off the house note. Chelle's bestie Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) arrives to help Chelle with decorations, and to offer her opinion on what she'd do if she got an inheritance—and it wouldn't be to pay off the mortgage. But later, when Lank and his best friend Sly (Myers Clark) return with a white girl they found beaten into unconsciousness, their plans—in fact, their entire lives—take a very different, and very dangerous, turn. Just because one character expresses how he is "tired of being treated like trash," it doesn't mean it's likely to change anytime soon. Lank sees the white flight to the suburbs as a chance for Detroit to rise as a black "Mecca," where he and his brothers and sisters can own the businesses and create a safe space for and entire community to fulfill their dreams.

But Detroit is still America, so those dreams will go unfulfilled—in 1967 and for decades after.

This may sound bleak (and on many levels it is), but in Morisseau's play (under the skilled direction of Darryl V. Jones), the hopefulness of Chelle and Lank (and Bunny and Sly) suffuses the action like the energizing rhythms that come pouring out of those 8-track cassettes. Morisseau has created a marvelous mix of personalities. The reticent but powerful Chelle, who wants to maintain her quiet, uneventful life, is the stable heart of this play, but Lank is its driving force. For him, life "ain't about keepin' what you got—it's about buildin' something new."

The cast inhabit these characters with tremendous vigor. There was never a moment when I thought of them as actors playing roles; they are so committed to their characters and so in touch with their humanity that I never saw anything but a group of family and friends facing daunting challenges with a sobering blend of hopefulness and pragmatism. Halili Knox's portrayal of Chelle is especially skilled—she is able somehow to simultaneously display her character's need to both keep her head down and keep her eyes on the prize. Rafael Jordan portrays Lank with an infectious energy—his plans seem both overly optimistic and tragically modest, but Jordan finds a way to have us rooting him on, despite Chelle's (and our) skepticism. Emily Radosevich also gives us a fine turn as Caroline, the white woman Lank and Sly rescue.

Technically, this production is flawless. Richard Olmstead's set is a delightfully downscale representation of a basement getaway, and Kitty Munzel's costumes perfectly evoke the colorful energy of 1970s urban fashion.

The unbearable sadness of Detroit '67 is, in great part, due to the fact that we in the audience know what has happened to people like these characters ,in a country that has never truly addressed its prejudices and history of injustice. But somehow, the hopefulness of Morisseau's characters, who seem ready to persevere through whatever the future brings, may send you out of the theatre with a similar optimism.

Detroit '67, through September 30, 2018, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $33-$65. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.

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