Detroit Public Theatre's 'Detroit '67' takes audience on emotional journey
The first time Detroit native Carollette Phillips saw "Detroit '67," a play that tells the story of one family amid the uprising that reshaped the city more than 50 years ago, she had such a visceral reaction she had to leave the theater at one point.
"This could be right now," said Phillips, an actress who now lives in Los Angeles.
That relevancy is one reason why Detroit Public Theatre decided to bring back "Detroit '67," staging its newest production at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Beginning Wednesday and running through June 5 at the museum's General Motors Theater, the play, written by Dominique Morisseau, another Detroit native and Detroit Public Theatre's executive artistic producer, explores that devastating period in 1967 and its impacts on one family, their decisions and everyone around them.
"I grew up hearing 'race riot' and now it is in my bones that it was a rebellion," said Edmund Alyn Jones, the actor who plays Langston "Lank" Hughes Poindexter, one of the lead characters, opposite Phillips, who plays Chelle, his sister. "It was people being treated wrong and standing up."
But even though the play, directed by Detroit Public Theatre veteran Brian Marable, delves into such a devastating period, there's a lot of joy, too, said Jones.
"We laugh a lot during the show and as a cast," he said.
Still, the show is an "emotional roller coaster," said actor Henrí Franklin, who plays Lank's best friend Sly. He hopes it sparks conversations.
"I hope people walk away and talk and say, 'Hey, are these things still happening? Hey, is there anything I'm doing in my own personal life contributing to these things? Do I have friends that are contributing to these things?" said Franklin, who has also starred in Detroit Pubic Theatre's previous "Detroit '67" productions. "If so, is it safe and is it OK for me to speak up against it. It's a really, really human story."
"Detroit '67" marks Detroit Public Theatre's first indoor production since COVID hit two years ago and the final play of its 2021-2022 season.
Courtney Burkett, one of DPT's three co-founders and producing artistic director, said as they contemplated what show should end their season, they decided to revisit "Detroit '67" given that it's a play about history but it's "a play about today, too."
DPT first produced "Detroit '67" in 2016 to end the theatre's inaugural season and again as a touring production in 2017, the 50th anniversary of what's now been called an uprising. The tour even launched in the spot where the uprising started at 12th and Clairmont.
"That was really powerful. The first performance was outside at Gordon Park on the day that marked the 50th anniversary," said Burkett.
For Detroit Public Theatre, bringing back "Detroit '67" "just felt right," said Burkett. "It's a great way to reintroduce ourselves in a lot of ways. A lot of companies do 'A Christmas Carol' every year or 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' We're Detroit Public Theatre and we feel like this is a core piece of programming that we need to revisit."
The play takes place right over a roughly five-day period in July of 1967 where the uprising started on the city's north end. It centers on Lank and Chelle after they've inherited their family home and they're running a speakeasy out of the basement. And the two have different ideas of what should happen to the family home.
Lank "wants something more," said Jones. "They get an inheritance. Instead of doing the safe thing with it — his sister wants to pay off the mortgage — he wants to invest it in a business so it can grow."
Burkett said ultimately, it delves into "upward mobility, ownership in the community and neighborhood. And around them all the tensions in the city are building and essentially erupting."
Phillips, who plays Chelle, said her parents had just moved to Detroit from the Tennessee right after the 1967 uprising. She said one thing she loves about Morisseau's play is that she sees a lot of her mom and dad in the show. She also relates to it as a Black woman amid the deaths of Black men such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
She remembers her husband going for a run after Arbery's death and how she almost had a panic attack when he wasn't home in 30 minutes.
"These men look like my uncle, my father, my husband, my sons, my brothers. And that's what you have in the play," she said. "These people weren't rioters and looters — these people were people, somebody's people."
The play also explores families, roots, what connects people to their roots and the importance of telling your own story, she said.
"If you don't tell your story, history can paint you in a different way," Phillips said. "...That's why it's so important to just remember your roots, and to have an understanding of how and why these things happen, and how we can make it better."
produced by Detroit Public Theatre.
Wednesday through June 11 at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History's General Motors Theater, 315 E. Warren Avenue, Detroit.
For tickets, go to https://www.detroitpublictheatre.org/.