“Detroit ’67” – Black Theatre Troupe/Tempe Center for the Arts

Theater Review – February 23, 2019

RACIAL TENSIONS BLANDLY TREATED IN WEAKLY STAGED “DETROIT ‘67”

“DETROIT ‘67”
Black Theatre Troupe/Tempe Center for the Arts, Studio Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts
Tempe, AZ

Racial tension sparked Detroit in 1967 causing the city to become a violent place where riots resulted from intolerance and bigotry against Blacks.  It was a revolutionary beginning to injustice that remains unresolved today.

This brutal struggle forms the basis of Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67, a regional premiere presented jointly by the Black Theatre Troupe and the Tempe Center for the Arts.  Unfortunately, the play fails to establish the throbbing tension that existed then as it focuses on how a family dealt with these major societal changes.  The play plods on for an eternity stymied by an over-staged production that does have three fine actresses who capture discrimination’s impact on females but the two male actors fail to equal the women’s gut-wrenching performances resulting in a disappointing production.

How such a significant historical situation can be so weakly dramatized creates little audience interest in “Detroit ‘67.”  Couple the poor script with a rambling and slow-moving production filled with unnecessary stage movement and “Detroit ‘67” turns into squirmy tedium.  While the three female performers create rich characterizations, their fine performances get nothing from the two male performers who must give the play’s sparking tension an intensify but instead only achieve mediocrity.

We join a family who hopes to turn the basement of their old Detroit home in a non-desirable area into a night club where the neighborhood can relax while avoiding clashes with Whites.  Brother Lank and his sister Chelle disagree on how to co-exist with others.  Lank’s friend, Sly, becomes his business partner in an ill-fated local bar they prove incapable of running successfully but that robs the family of their inheritance from their deceased parents.  Family member Bunny is less interested in Detroit’s social dynamic and more interested in accumulating assets to make her successful. The guys rescue a White girl, Caroline, who sustained injuries inflicted by the police as they awkwardly attempted to control the riots.  Caroline understands more about being an outcast than those in the family.

The situation should be fraught with stress but Ralph Remington’s laggardly staging and the sloppy male performances defuse the tension created by Chelle’s stubborn but subservient approach to racial differences, Caroline’s realistic perspective on diversity, and Bunny’s attempt to avoid conflicts.

Lillie Richardson’s Chelle becomes a stubborn woman who envisions herself a second-class citizen.  She’s content to live in her inherited home and struggle, as her parents did, against injustice knowing she will always lose.  Glamorous Bunny is played with superficial effervescence by Ashley White who only dreams of getting what Whites crave.  Alison Campbell plays Caroline with sharp insight into injustice’s reality.

Calvin Worthen’s Lank lacks the staunch determination to succeed in a listless performance while Cornelius Williams’ Sly never makes us care about why his character never achieves success.

“Detroit ‘67” should be a convincing piece about the evils of injustice and how Blacks never achieve a chance at success but the playwright’s unfocused approach never conveys the subject tellingly.  “Detroit ‘67” continues through March 17.  For tickets, call the Tempe Center for the Arts box office at 480-350-2822 or order tickets online at www.tempecenterforthearts.com.

Grade: C