Rioting and destruction, loss of property and lives devastated the Motor City’s West Side in the summer of 1967. The largely African-American population was responding to the increase in police brutality while the press was labeling the mounting protests and demonstrations as race riots.
Dominique Morisseau has zeroed in on a small, closely knit group of people whose lives are upended by the upheaval and violence. “Detroit ’67” is a part of her The Detroit Project ’67, a three-play cycle that also includes the exceptional “Skeleton Crew” seen at the Atlantic Theater and “Paradise Blue” more recently at the Signature Theater.
Detroit ’67 has been given an impressive and involving production at McCarter Theater under the crackling direction of Jade King Carroll. The action is centered around the lives of adult African-American siblings Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey.) In the Detroit home they have inherited, they are hoping to pay off the mortgage by charging for late night parties called “blind pigs” in the basement. Here they provide free liquor to avoid violating the law and music from a 45 record player. At first, the installation of an 8-track player is the plot’s only major issue.
What bothers Chelle most, however, is listening to Lank talk of taking their inheritance and opening a real bar with his friend Sly (Will Cobbs). A widow, Chelle wants to make sure their money is used to continue her son’s college education. Lank and Sly’s plans get temporarily sidetracked when they bring home Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a badly beaten and bruised white woman whom they find wandering in a daze late at night. Of course, the big scare is suddenly becoming aware of what is happening on the street where they live and all around them.
Although Chelle is fearful of their making a rash decision, they let Caroline remain with them despite her being reluctant to tell them much about her past. We eventually learn that she worked in a seedy establishment catering to both black and white patronage and especially to crooked cops.
In any event, she seems familiar with waitressing and appears grateful to work for room and board. What appears to be a physical attraction between Caroline and Lank does not please Chelle, who would rather see her brother take up with her best friend, the live-wire and fun-seeking Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
With shades of “A Raisin In the Sun,” Lank’s determination to take the inheritance without Chelle’s knowledge and purchase the bar is ill-timed considering the turn of events in the outside world. The comedic and dramatic contrivances that drive the early part of the play certainly clash with the harsher and even tragic events that come to fruition in the second half. But the play builds considerably as the characters become more realized and more intimately revealed and as we become more invested in their relationships.
Ordinary characters become extraordinary thanks to an excellent cast and a director who brings out their best. Ramey has possibly the biggest transitions to make as Lank, whom we see grow from a slightly reckless young man with a dream to a fortress of dependability and support in a time of need. Le Vine skillfully underplays the needy Caroline, although I think the hint of heat the playwright creates between her and Lank appears gratuitous. The practical and cautious Chelle and the more amusingly persuasive Sly have the more genuinely affecting love scene for which Tyler and Cobb can take credit. It’s okay that Allie doesn’t resist the temptation to make Bunny the sexy and jokey archetype.
Audiences are not likely to resist addressing the truth that this play is as poignantly timely and as grievously topical now as it was 51 years ago. The basement setting designed by Ricardo Hernandez is a bit too cluttered. It is, however, effectively framed to include the top of the house, so that special effects with the help of lighting designer Nicole Pearce and sound designer Karin Graybash can suggest the mayhem going on in the street.
Detroit ’67, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, October 28. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.