Take your pick of sad and ironic clichés: that was then, this is now; or, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Although it isn’t exactly a historical drama, Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67” is definitely a period piece. Her fictional story is set nearly 50 years ago, gradually unfolding against the real-life backdrop of the race riots that erupted between the city’s black community and its white police force. She actually wrote the play in 2011, and that it speaks even louder today, in the context of 2014 Ferguson, feels less prescient on her part than mostly coincidental.
All of the immediate (that is, visible) action takes place in a modest basement apartment. But New York director Kamilah Forbes’ solid staging for True Colors Theatre does a very arresting job of depicting the turmoil and danger that eventually surrounds and threatens the characters – in flurries of explosive lighting (designed by Mary Parker), reverberating sound effects (by Justin Ellington) and newsreel-style video projections (by Thomas Byrd).
In more ways than one, those larger external signs tend to overwhelm the play’s intimate personal concerns. Its central struggle is at least as old as “A Raisin in the Sun.” Lank (E. Roger Mitchell) and Chelle (Tinashe Kajese-Bolden) are grown siblings with opposing views about how to spend a small inheritance from their late parents. She argues for holding on to “what we’ve got” and keeping it “in the family,” while he dreams of “building something new” and opening his own club.
Equally familiar and somewhat stale is the brother’s budding romance – and his sister’s reaction to it – with a battered white woman (Courtney Patterson), a “dirty dancer” with ties to a crooked cop. In effect, Morisseau simplifies the matter of race relations to the level of a melodramatic soap opera, a shared love for Motown’s greatest hits (many of which are featured on the show’s prerecorded soundtrack).
Kajese-Bolden and Patterson are fine, to be sure. So are Enoch King and Tonia Jackson, albeit in periodically misguided comic relief as Lank and Chelle’s alternately slick and sassy best friends.
But it’s Mitchell’s dynamic performance that singularly elevates and truly distinguishes the production. To hear him contemplate the promise of living “above ground,” after a lifetime in the basement, as it were, is a genuinely powerful and heartfelt moment that might seem overwrought or heavy in less talented hands. Even knowing what we do now about the current state of Detroit, when he talks about the city as a modern-day Mecca, you really listen and almost believe him.
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, Lank maintains, and some dreams are worthier of pursuing than others. In the end, “Detroit ’67” mainly makes you wonder what Mitchell could pull off with “A Raisin in the Sun.”