‘Detroit ’67’ rewinds to unrest of Motor City at DPT

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

When actress Michelle Wilson appeared in the world premiere of “Detroit ’67” in 2013, she says audiences received the play as a “period piece.” Now, she says, the story about the 1967 Detroit civil unrest “has such a different relevancy.”

“The first time we did it was before the world blew back up,” Wilson says. “It was pre-Ferguson. It was before all of these damn videos coming out where we’re forced to bear witness to how our community is humiliated and literally hurt by the powers that be.”

“Detroit ’67” will close the Detroit Public Theatre’s inaugural season, running at Allesee Hall from May 13 to June 5. The show will appear in Detroit by special arrangement with Baltimore’s Center Stage theater company, where it ran through most of April.

The story is set in a Detroit basement, where brother Lank and sister Chelle (played by Wilson, reprising the role she originated) run an after-hours club, as the rioting breaks out outside. The African-American siblings’ relationship is strained when Lank brings home a badly beaten white woman whom he encounters on the street. Playwright Dominique Morisseau says she’s been surprised at the way her play has become “increasingly important” in the short time since she wrote it.

“Since 2014, the play has actually become not about the past at all,” she says. “I think that that’s strange and profound and painful, but I’m happy that the work is able to speak to some of the things that are happening.”

In Baltimore, the show has taken on particular significance in light of the riot there last year following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. Wilson says the audience feels like an additional character in each performance of the show, and that theatergoers’ “energy and their compassion” is palpable.

“You’re in this basement with (the characters) as the outside world is pushing its way in, pushing its way in, pushing its way in,” she says. “People are taking a very cathartic journey, especially in this city that has been so wounded.”

Morisseau, a Detroit native who now resides in New York City and Los Angeles, originally conceived “Detroit ’67” as the first installment in a trilogy of plays about the city. She was particularly inspired by August Wilson’s acclaimed “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which includes the Pulitzer Prize winner “Fences” among a series of 10 plays about that Pennsylvania city.

Playwright stays true to her Detroit roots

For the first installment in her cycle about Detroit, Morisseau was immediately fascinated by the ’67 disturbances, which she says she’d always been vaguely aware of but otherwise had almost no preexisting knowledge of. She dug up extensive background material simply by conversing with her own family — particularly her uncle, a former journalist.

“I discovered he had shelves and shelves of binders of information specifically on the riot — things he had written about it, articles he had saved since 1967,” she says. “He was my library.”

Morisseau says music is always a big part of the creative process for her, and “Detroit ’67” was no exception. She immersed herself in the Motown hits of the time while writing, and numerous Motown songs are featured in the play. She says the intimate and uniquely Midwestern setting of a basement music venue made perfect sense to her as a way to tell the larger story of the riot.

“I wanted to see it through the lens of a family who had no idea it was coming, but who were living right in the soul of where it was happening,” she says.

Morisseau has since completed the other two plays in her Detroit trilogy: “Paradise Blue,” which focuses on the jazz scene in Paradise Valley in 1949, and “Skeleton Crew,” following a group of workers at an auto stamping plant in 2008. “Detroit ’67” has been the most successful of the trilogy so far; the Detroit run will mark the 13th time the show has been produced. It also will be the first time the play has appeared in Detroit.

“I’ve been holding off on bringing my work home to Detroit because I just wanted to make sure it was going to be done in a way that was of high quality, so that Detroit is not getting some secondary production to what the rest of the country has had,” Morisseau says. “I’ve had to wait for people that have the resources and the vision to pull that off, and that’s Detroit Public Theatre. They had both.”

Organizers at the fledgling DPT say Morisseau’s own resourcefulness was crucial to making the project happen. When Morisseau originally approached the theater with the idea of presenting the Center Stage production, producing director Sarah Clare Corporandy says the theater declined because the out-of-town production was simply too big for DPT’s budget.

“We shared that with Dominique and she said, ‘Can you give me two weeks? I want to see if I can find some funding to help this happen,’ ” Corporandy says. “And she did.”

Joining the Detroit production as an associate producer, Morisseau secured financial contributions from New York producers and a Center Stage board member. She also has been heavily involved in organizing additional programming around the show, including in-class presentations to accompany matinee shows for Detroit Public Schools students.

Despite her bicoastal lifestyle, Morisseau says she returns to Detroit regularly and has a deep sense of engagement with the city. She notes that her Detroit cycle consists of three plays, “for now.”

“I might leave the city, but the city never leaves me,” she says.

Wilson, who is also a Detroit native, says she expects “Detroit ’67” will attain yet another new level of relevance in the city that is its setting.

“I think Detroit is just going to eat it up, because we never get to speak for ourselves,” she says. “We’re pathologized and we’re studied and we’re counted ... Our failures are duly cataloged. It’s so rare that you actually get to see the humanity behind the city and the people.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

‘Detroit ’67’

Friday-June 5

8 p.m. Thurs., Fri. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Wed. and Sun.; 7:30 p.m. May 22, 29 and June 5; 8 p.m. May 25 and June 1

Allesee Hall

3711 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets: $20-$45

(313) 576-5111