“Detroit ‘67” is a play everyone should see at least once.
The Naptown African American Theatre Collective premiered Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ‘67” Aug. 24 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center. Directed by D’yshe Mansfield, “Detroit ‘67” tells the emotional and powerful story of five dreamers as they attempt to restore order to chaos during the 1967 race rebellion in Detroit, Michigan, which was sparked by years of pent-up frustration due to police brutality and discrimination.
The story takes place in Chell (LaKesha Lorene) and Lank’s (Ennis Adams, Jr.) small basement, a unique, life-like set taking up the small Black Box Stage at the Phoenix Theatre. It is an intimate set for an intimate show — an old floral couch, an in-house dry bar, Christmas lights strung up to add a splash of color to the place, a record player next to the laundry hung to dry and art all over the walls. The place holds sentimental value. It is home.
As is the nature of live theater, I was drawn into the story: As it unfolded onstage, I was right there with them, my body anchored to the seat, but my heart sitting in that basement, living every moment alongside the five characters — basking in their joy, groaning with their annoyance and holding my breath with their anticipation.
The NAATC have been saying they are going to do this — Black theater, by Black actors, for Black audiences — for months, even years. Yet, for the second time this year, I still found myself sitting with a fluttering feeling of giddiness as I watched them do exactly what they said they were going to do. For the few moments I took my eyes off the stage and watched the audience, I was pleased to see a crowd of diverse individuals absorbing every minute of the performance with love.
Lorene may be the founder and producing director of the NAATC, but do not forget she is a performer for good reason. I have seen her perform a few times around the city and each time I am left in awe at the raw talent she exudes onstage. Lorene wears many hats in the performance industry around Indianapolis, and she is always one to watch, both on and offstage. Her presence onstage as Chell, the fierce and conventional sister of Lank, who is financially supporting a son away at college, was breathtaking and full of compassion.
Dena L. Toler, an Indianapolis-based actor and director, was exemplary in the role of Bunny (short for Bonita). The ease with which she brought the character to life — spunky and flirty, with an exciting sense of humor and kind heart — had audience members in the palm of her hand. Toler’s facial expressions, body language and the overall way in which she carried herself as Bunny transcended words, as she communicated Bunny’s disdain, joy and sorrow effortlessly.
However, Adams’ portrayal of Lank, Chell’s optimistic and charismatic younger brother, spoke to the truth of what it means to let yourself dream. Watching him want for a better, safer life for his family and friends while battling growing feelings for the mysterious woman he saved and the turmoil of a city on fire felt like mental chess.
Lank’s best buddy, Sly, short for Sylvester (Daniel A. Martin), admittedly, enters each scene like the glue holding a friendship, more like family, together. His charming smile and perfectly timed humor leave little doubt that he does well as a numbers man. The game of “will they, won’t they” between Sly and Chell ultimately comes to a head toward the end of the show; however, Martin said a happy ending does not always mean tension is resolved or conflict is quelled.
“If those who are just surviving just continue to survive, then that’s a win in their category for them,” Martin told the Recorder. “They’re still not living, but they’re alive and able to continue. In that sense, it’s a happy ending; they’re able to keep dreaming and pushing for gold … it isn’t concluded.”
The beautiful but mysterious Caroline (Sara Castillo Dandurand) — who becomes the receiver of Chell and Lank’s hospitality — brings an air of curiosity and skepticism to the group of friends. Her light-hearted naivete to the unfair conflict Black folks are subject to in 1967 Detroit creates an inevitable rift between them. Although she has a moment of realization, it is understood that the growing chemistry between her and Lank cannot be anything more now, but perhaps one day.
The show, albeit a necessary one, is at times hard to watch. Understanding the context and the state of the world these five people are living, dreaming and fighting in is heartbreaking. However, Lorene said the theater is meant to be a safe place to tell these stories: the stories of our community and our ancestors.
“Black people’s worlds are almost controlled and dominated to a sense,” Martin said. “Once you find some people who are on your side and have your best intentions at heart, you can do anything, and this core group of friends and family shows that.”
“Detroit ‘67” is emotionally charged. It is romantic, funny, devastating and a little bit corny. But most importantly, it is real; it is about family; it is about fear; it is about allowing yourself to dream; it is beautiful, and the NAATC is giving audiences a rare gift with this production.
“Detroit ‘67” is onstage now through Sept. 10. Tickets start at $15 and are on sale at phoenixtheatre.org/buy-tickets. The show is rated 14+ for adult language and topics, including violence and death, suggestive situations, substance use and indirect references to sexuality. For more information, visit naatcinc.org or contact email@example.com.
Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.