Throughout America’s “long, hot summer” of 1967, police brutality exacerbated combustible racial tensions and cities burned nationwide: Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Cambridge, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Newark, New York, Saginaw, Tampa … 159 riots, in the final tally.
Detroit’s five-day rebellion emerged as the bloodiest, and the worst US riot in a century. Forty-three people died, almost 1,200 were injured, more than 2,000 buildings became material casualties, and the deployment of National Guard and Army troops in the city caused marginalized citizens to feel their neighborhoods were being occupied by an invading force.
Dominique Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient, won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for her play “Detroit 67,” which is set in her hometown during that long, hot summer. Part of a trilogy (with “Paradise Blue” and “Skeleton Crew”), “Detroit 67” is being revived next weekend at the Pasadena Playhouse’s 99-seat Carrie Hamilton Theater by second-year MFA students at USC’s School of Drama.
The play depicts an African-American sister and brother, Chelle and Lank, and the conflict that erupts when Lank opens their unlicensed basement bar to shelter an injured white woman, Caroline, as the riot rages in the city. Fueled by the characters’ cross-wired attempts to understand each other, the drama echoes events roiling America today.
Director Gregg T. Daniel, who also directed Mfoniso Udofia’s refugee-themed “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court this summer, says he and the youthful cast immersed themselves for a week in photos, video and other historical mementos from that “incendiary time.”
“In some ways they’re beneficiaries, I told them, of the civil rights movement of the ’60s,” he recalls. “What’s really uncanny and sad is that the same conditions and themes which existed that produced those uprisings in many ways still exist today. Perpetual injustice, racism, bigotry — if anything, on our national scene it’s made a resurgence that I would never have seen coming. In this play, a young man is beaten up pretty badly by the police; again, it was indicative of the time and is still indicative of the time. …
“It’s eerie that we’re talking about things in 1967 that have such contemporary resonance. It’s a very violent world this play exists in. These people are marginalized. The basement where ostensibly they hold parties to make a living, rent parties, is really their little piece of sanctuary, because once they go outside of this house they may never come back in terms of police violence and the violence within the city. We steeped ourselves in the politics of the time nationally, racially, economically. We often talk of how it resonates in 2018.”
The production, which is being staged in the Pasadena Playhouse’s 99-seat Carrie Hamilton Theater, is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Playhouse and the USC School of Drama. (Adam Bock’s “The Receptionist” will also be presented under its auspices at the Carrie Hamilton Nov. 15-17.) David Warshofsky, director of USC’s MFA acting program, calls it a “formally informal” and mutually beneficial arrangement. Both he and Daniel rave about how the opportunity to perform at a prestigious regional theater like the Playhouse greatly expands the students’ training — and, hopefully, future professional networking options. A dedicated fan of Morisseau’s writing, Warshofsky says he had been eager for an opportunity to present one of her plays.
Actress Deja Thompson, who portrays Chelle, calls the play “a story that needs to be told” and says it’s close to her heart, not least because, like Chelle, she has a younger brother. She likens the relationship between Chelle and Caroline to a very fast roller coaster. Riding it has been a “whirlwind,” she says, because she personally has never had to have conversations with someone “not fully understanding or comprehending their privilege due to their skin.”
“It’s been mindboggling sometimes, because it’s real, and these conversations do need to happen [today],” she says. “So when I am stepping into the arguments that me and Caroline have, it makes me tingle; my whole body kind of tenses up because I think about the reality of our world. I think about all that has happened to African Americans, and I’m in shock. It’s hard for me. To be the one who’s delivering and be very on the point of my delivery in my speech is rewarding, yes; but at the same time, I’m frustrated. … Why are we so divided? Looking at the bigger picture, our world has come so far, yet we have so far to go.”
The play’s action is backdropped by songs of Motown — classics by the likes of Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, and the Temptations. According to Daniel, their placement is not incidental.
“It’s amazing that this black man, Berry Gordy, started this record empire and perfected a sound, the Motown sound, at a time when black music wasn’t even played on many radio stations,” he notes. “So the music is almost in resistance to the times. … It’s more than just feel-good music. The actors are going through the lyrics, discussing what this song is about, what might have influenced the song. Because it really is a way of resistance; of saying we love the way we love, why we love who we love.”
“Detroit 67” runs from Thursday, Nov. 8, through Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; $20 general admission/$10 USC students and staff and Playhouse members. Info: (626) 356-7529. pasadenaplayhouse.org