Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review of "Detroit '67"

Music, specifically the driving rhythms and soulful sounds of Detroit’s own Motown records, is a constant connector in the slice of life drama, Detroit ’67, at Hartford Stage.  Playwright Dominique Morisseau states, “music…lets characters relate to one another through the music.  I wanted these characters to listen to music that had a particular message or point of view that spoke to where they were or what they were going through…”  Throughout the moderately engaging production, the songs that were embraced by the Black community are utilized to express joy, the flirtatious spirit, and sorrow.  The devices that play the latest hits—a semi-functioning record player and a newfangled 8-track machine serve as a metaphor for two of the character’s outlooks on life.  For Chelle, the dilapidated player is in tune with her view of staying the path that worked for her parents.  Her brother Lank, looking for new opportunities to deliver him from his purposeless direction, invests in the latest technology of the 8-track player.

The title of the show gives audience members an idea of what will eventually transpire within the storyline—the 1967 Detroit riots, also known as The Great Rebellion.  This racially charged event serves as the backdrop in the latter part of the show.  Beforehand, life is rather mundane.  We see Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), her brother Lank (Johnny Ramey), and friends Bunny (Nyahale Allie), and Sly (Will Cobbs) prepare for the next night’s after hours house party as a way to make money for the siblings.  But the commonplace soon turns upside down with the arrival of a mysterious white woman (Caroline), beaten and bloodied, the questionable use of inheritance money, and the fateful week in the summer of ‘67.

Dominique Morisseau has stitched together a somewhat compelling drama that can be thought provoking and engrossing as it tackles race relations in a city soon to be, literally, under the gun.  For audience members not well schooled in the underlying causes of the Detroit Rebellion, the play presents a perspective not popularly conveyed.  The difficulty for the playwright is articulating a vision, which is both dramatically absorbing and historically on point.

The cast is relaxed in their roles, having already portrayed their characters in a production at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater in October 2018.  The actress Myxolydia Tyler imbues Chelle with compassion and purpose.  She is a strong individual trying to keep her world in check as it suddenly and tragically changes.  Nyahale Allie’s Bunny adds a degree of levity to the production, but the actress’ performance is more nuanced as she provides comfort and compassion to her friends in need.  Johnny Ramey’s Lank is a man hungry for change, seeking a new direction in life and love.  While the character can be rash and sometimes self-effacing, the actor gives him a sympathetic rendering.  Will Cobbs’ initial portrayal of Sly is of a smooth-talking rascal, but as the play progresses we realize there is more substance and subtlety to his performance.  Ginna Le Vine instills both a vulnerability and inner strength in her role of Caroline.

Director Jade King Carroll’s strength is keeping the story telling moving forward with blips of impelling action.  She works well in teasing out developing relationships among the characters and within the slowly simmering milieu.  What the director cannot do is consistently pump up the dramatic arc due to the playwright’s episodic nature of the production.

Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a utilitarian looking, refurbished basement area where the show takes place.  Working with Lighting Designer Nicole Pearce and Sound Designer Karin Graybash, the set takes on a more ominous tone towards the latter half of the play as the dangers evolving outside become more perilous.

Detroit ’67, at Hartford Stage through March 10th.

No comments: