Detroit ’67 at The Strand Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

A little scratch gives you character, unless you’re a 45-vinyl, in which case it just causes you to skip a lot. The Strand Theatre has a whole lot of character and more importantly they have the message. They have the message of love with their production of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, directed by Erin Riley. Powerful, evocative, visceral— this stunning drama set in the heart of the “colored district in downtown Detroit in the midst of the race riots” is poignant and disturbing in its relevance to the modern day. Gripping and emotionally unsettling, the production will leave you with a great many feelings, not the least of which will be compassion.

Dominique Morisseau’s work is striking. It’s emotionally disorienting and disarming, forcing a brutal scrutiny onto the bitter bits of America’s past, in particular the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s. The then-called “race riots” in Detroit, Michigan were a pivotal, albeit ugly, moment in our nation’s past but bare excruciating relevance and relatability to everything happening in the world today. Morisseau’s writing is evocative; the way in which she captures the essence of the time through dialogue patterns is exquisite and her subject matter needs no explanation or extrapolation. Her work is raw but no unfinished, exposed but not unpolished.

Director Erin Riley finds a wealth of talent in the five-person cast that she features on the stage. While there are a few moments of pause that create little gaps of uncertainty and ultimately slow the show’s pacing, most of these are easily overlooked because of the dramatic and dynamic tensions that are created overtop of Morisseau’s script. Stage Manager Lyn Belzer assists with the fluidity of the performance, and the moments where scenic sluggishness occurs are swept quickly along in moments of high-intensity emotional outbursts.

The set is quite striking, matching the caliber of talent on the stage. Set Designer Brian Douglas has crafted a downstairs basement living space with the overhang of the stairs above as well as the illusion of street level windows, which allow Lana Riggins’ Lighting Design to manipulate the time of night and day as well as the arrival of the police during pivotal moments of the performance. Properties Master and Set Dresser Jennifer Swisko Beck really spruces the place up, giving it a lived-in and lively feel despite the potential for stagnation in a single-room set. The real mastery of the show’s aesthetic is provided by Scenic Artist David Cunningham, responsible for the three distinct paintings on the basement walls— one of the massive star created by the Chelle character in her youth, one messy yet artistic portrait of Chelle, created by Lank in his youth, and one dominating, powerful black fist, pumping skyward as created by their father when they were young. Cunningham’s iconic paintings guide the backstory of the performance and add something breathtaking to see in Douglas’ set work.

Costume Designer Lori Travis knows her fashion sense when it comes to the 1960’s. We get petal pushers and all sorts of outfits for the women and real slick looking threads for the men. One of the finest pieces featured among Travis’ sartorial selection is the two-piece orange jumpsuit with the spiderwebbing on the legs featured on the Bunny character. This vibe screams ‘mod’ straight from the center of the 60’s and really suits the actresses body to a tee as well as jives with the fashion of the era.

The show itself is a harrowing, a brutal emotional trek through the lives of four African-American individuals just trying to live life and do better for themselves when the commotion breaks out in Detroit. All five members of the cast— four African-American performers and one Caucasian performer— engage with the text and the narrative as well as each other in a fierce fashion. This five-person ensemble delivers revolutionary messages of love that shouldn’t seem so difficult to grasp and yet the plight with which these characters are plagued rings true on a multitude of levels in today’s society.

Betse Lyons’ portrayal of Caroline is the most ill at ease in the production though this follows suit with the way the narrative is written. Caroline is a white girl who ends up in the basement of an African-America household without any explanation and looking worse for the wear after a series of inexplicable circumstances. Subdued, meager, and emotionally cloistered, Lyons plays the character with mild mannerisms, adding quirks of humor where and when the script calls for it. While the Caroline character is a component of the story, and certainly a catalyst for a great deal of the drama, she’s not meant to be the focus, and Lyons’ addresses this sentiment accordingly.

Bunny (Rachel D. Reckling) is too much for words. Over the top, full of sass and pizazz, Reckling tackles the character with much panache and really gives her a lively spirit. The Bunny character is meant to serve as the comedic relief, or at least the pressure-release valve when it comes to some of the more high-strung scenes between Chelle and Lank. Reckling’s work on stage is hilarious but also grounded in a place of truth. So when things turn sour and things get dark, Reckling’s sudden shift to severity feels especially brutal and disarming. Serving up sassy sexpot realness, Reckling is well adjusted to the character and feels comfortable in Bunny’s skin, especially when it comes to making those snappy remarks.

Forever slamming doors, Sly (Mack Leamon) is smooth like velvet and slick like oil. He means well but has a charisma about him that could pluck out Chelle’s every last nerve if she let him. Leamon gives a powerhouse performance, much the way Troy Jennings does in playing Lank. Often seen together, up to their version of doing what’s right, Jennings and Leamon are quite the pair to watch on the stage. Jennings comes to blows quite ferociously against his sister Chelle, and when they shout it out over the way they believe life should be lived, it’s an honest gut-punching tearjerker.

While Shamire Casselle may look a bit too young to convincingly have a son who is now at the Tuskegee Institute down in Washington, she plays the character of Chelle with great reverence. Knowing how to temper her arguments, knowing when to dispense with the humors and nail into the emotional hardships of her character’s life, Caselle gives an extraordinary performance in this role. Masterfully delivering the patois and cadence of the people from this time and place in history, much like the rest of the cast, Casselle fabricates a reality which is brutal to observe and heart-wrenching to empathize with. A true powerhouse performer, especially when the showdown of words between Chelle and Caroline gets underway, Casselle grounds the performance around her character and carries through with unrelenting fervor.

These characters may be a little troubled, but troubled don’t make them bad people. An eye-opening experience for all, and horrifyingly relatable to the modern moment in time, Detroit ’67 is an absolute must-see this autumn season.  

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Detroit ’67 plays through November 18, 2018 at The Strand Theatre— 5426 Harford Road in the Hamilton neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 874-4917 or purchase them online.

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