Detroit ’67 Highlights Race Relations

By Finne Murphy

This weekend marked the premiere of Detroit ’67, a play written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Rebecca Johnson ’16.5. The recipient of the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, the show ran from Mar. 17 -19 to sold-out audiences in the Hepburn Zoo.

The story focuses on brother and sister Lank and Chelle, portrayed by Jabari Matthew ’17 and Diku Rogers ’16, as they struggle to make ends meet in the summer of 1967. It takes place in the basement of their home, which they have converted into an after-hours club in order to bring in extra money. Chelle’s seriousness is offset by the hilarious honesty of her friend Bunny, played by Qadira Al-Mahi ’19. Meanwhile, Lank’s desire to build a better life for himself is complemented by the cool ambitions of his friend Sly, played by Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16. Just outside the relative safety of their basement, however, boils the 1967 Detroit riot — an event marked by civil disobedience, violence and destruction — that disrupts the lives of these five characters forever.

Detroit ’67 begins on a light note, but the tone turns grave in the second scene when Lank and Sly carry in the limp and bruised frame of Caroline, played by KJ Davidson-Turner ’17.5, a white girl whom they found nearly unconscious and badly beaten earlier that evening. Caroline’s story and secrets unfold over the course of the play, as does a tentative and subdued romance between her and Lank. What follows is a series of events that raise tensions between brother and sister and beg the question of how willing one is to stand up for what he or she believes in.

The show is a mix of the fictitious and the historical: Lank, Chelle, Sly, Bunny and Charlotte’s lives are overlaid by the Detroit riot of 1967, which began after a police raid on an after-hours club during the early morning hours of July 23. What began as violent public disorder escalated into one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the history of the United States. The Michigan Army National Guard brought an end to the riots after five days, resulting in over 40 deaths, 1,000 injuries, 7,200 arrests and 2,000 destroyed properties.

As a backdrop, the riots infuse a sense of urgency, realism and humanity into the simple story of a brother and sister struggling against a society of intolerance. The change that takes place within Chelle is particularly evident, as her worldview shifts in the fallout of a tragedy.

This tension is illustrated by the sounds of Motown floating over the story. Chelle and Lank clash over whether to play music on the record player or on the eight-track player. Chelle’s tendency to stick with the more outdated method, the record player, symbolizes her ambivalence toward the tumultuous and ever-changing world beyond her doors. Lank’s enthusiasm for the new form, the eight-track, signals his desire to revel in something new while he builds a better life for himself.

Detroit ’67 bears a profundity that stretches far beyond the reach of a simple review. In its characters lies the truth that every emotion and action stems from painful, lived experiences; in its plotline simmers the harsh reality of these events; and in its message cries a need for justice, answers and serious structural change.

As the first in a three-play series about playwright Morisseau’s hometown, Detroit ’67 is an undoubtedly Black story, a story too seldom told at Middlebury. Although the depicted events took place almost fifty years ago, they could have happened yesterday. It is not only the heavy realism of the play that makes it such a memorable work, but also the obvious love, attention and pride that went into its production by the cast and crew. Hopefully, the messages and meaning behind Detroit ’67 – difficult as they may be to navigate – will carry on long after the curtains have closed. ​