Hartford Stage is currently presenting an emotional and engaging production of Dominique Morisseau’s play, “Detroit ’67.” Part of the playwright’s “The Detroit Project,” a trilogy of plays, “Detroit ‘67” is a deeply absorbing and interesting work that presents characters that feel absolutely true to life. Set in Detroit in 1967, this play manages to fully capture the look and feel of that particular time and place, with a great deal of juicy dialogue. I had previously seen one other part of this playwright’s trilogy—the play “Paradise Blue,” at Long Wharf Theatre, last fall—but “Detroit ‘67” is even better.
It also helps that the five member cast is absolutely stellar, working as a deft ensemble, as well as giving all of the actors their moments to shine. Director Jade King Carroll is completely in tune with the milieu that Morisseau has created in this play and, although the show is made up of several short scenes, it all feels of a piece. On Riccardo Hernandez’s atmospheric and intricate set of a basement that functions as a club, “Detroit ‘67” is deftly played out, leading to a truly cathartic conclusion. Dominique Morisseau is certainly an exciting new voice in the theatre and it is highly recommended that you try to see “Detroit ‘67” at Hartford Stage.
Music plays a huge part in this play. Right from the beginning, watching the character Chelle (beautifully played by Myxolydia Tyler) attempt to play a scratchy 45 record on her turntable, despite the record continually getting stuck, it is evident that the choice of songs in this show is indicative of the particular people who occupy this play. Significantly, Chelle’s brother Lank (the terrific Johnny Ramey) and their friend Sly (portrayed wonderfully by Will Cobbs) are seen bringing an eight-track tape console down the stairs to the basement, despite the objections of Chelle. It is argued throughout the show whether the songs sound better on record or eight-track tape.
This is just one of the many disagreements that Chelle and Lank have during the show, though a decidedly less volatile one than some of the other arguments that these siblings have. Also making a significant impression in the show is Bunny, played gorgeously by the divine Nyahale Allie, who manages to steal nearly every scene she is in. The fifth character in “Detroit ‘67” is most definitely the most unexpected: the pretty and mysterious Caroline (the excellent Ginna Le Vine), who is a white girl in an otherwise strictly African American group of people. Needless to say, this mixing of the races in the play creates a lot of tension.
Throwing these five disparate people into the same setting results in a number of funny scenes, as well as some that can break your heart. Not to give anything away, but, in “Detroit ’67,” it is increasingly noted that there are “race riots” that are developing. Since this play takes place strictly in a basement, the audience can only hear the noise of sirens and violence happening outside. Going through all this turmoil together causes the various characters to bond as well as to fight. We can never see what is happening in the streets of Detroit in this play, but Morisseau’s writing is so illuminating and rich that an audience member still lives and breathes the horrors occurring just outside of view.
“Detroit ‘67” is filled with a number of surprising and intriguing scenes, and, as noted, music is evident throughout the show, and it is a sound that helps the characters in the show thrive and be entertained, as well as to struggle and hurt. Indeed, who would have thought that an upbeat song by The Four Tops could move one to tears? But I hesitate to reveal anything more about what happens in “Detroit ’67,” this gloriously alive play. Suffice it is to say that director Jade King Carroll has worked wonderfully with her designers, including decorative and period perfect costume design by Dede M. Ayite and enormously effective lighting by Nicole Pearce. The sound design (by Karin Graybash), so important in this play, is just about perfect. Enter the world of “Detroit ‘67” at Hartford Stage for some good times, as well as moments that can shatter a city.
“Detroit ‘67” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through March 10, 2019. For tickets, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: (L-R): Johnny Ramey and Myxolydia Tyler
Photo by T. Charles Erickson