Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 25, 2019

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Detroit ‘67

Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT
through March 10
by Jarice Hanson
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Dominique Morisseau’s exquisitely crafted “Detroit ‘67” is a powerful reminder of the so-called “race riots” that erupted across American cities in 1967. Detroit is Morisseau’s hometown, but it serves as a metaphor for what was, and what was to become a turning point in the cultural lives of all Americans.  Punctuated by the optimism and soul of Motown—one of Detroit’s musical gifts to the world, the story begins with a sister and brother who have inherited their family home.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) likes life the way it was. Her brother, Lank (Johnny Ramsey), has plans to open a neighborhood bar with his best friend, Sly (Will Cobbs). Neighbor and friend Bunny (Nyhale Allie) adds a level of sass and funk, but these four actors/characters convince their audience that they’ve had a history together and that they belong to a community in Detroit. Their petty squabbles, difficult past, and desire for the future are all upset when Lank brings Caroline, a white woman (Ginna Le Vine) beaten into unconsciousness, to the safe haven of the home’s basement as Detroit begins to burn and the forces outside begin to impact the characters’ lives.

Directed by Jade King Carroll and with an effective scene design by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Nicole Pearce, and brilliant sound design by Karin Graybash, the play establishes Detroit as a place where past and future clash. Morriseau’s metaphors are powerful and she is the type of playwright who knows when humor is needed. There are some very funny lines and character interpretations that all serve to build to the exciting, heart-rending conclusion.

The pace of this production, though, works against the message. Whether the director thought it necessary to slow the action so that the powerful words could be experienced by the audience, or the actors needed the time to traverse the big stage, the production plods somewhat through Act I, though there are some dramatic, even chilling moments in Act II. 

What Morisseau has effectively created, though, is a snapshot of American history. The breadth of this moment in time is also highlighted by a display in the upper lobby of the theatre that juxtaposes black and white photography of Detroit with Hartford’s own racial and civil unrest in 1967. This story needs to be told, and the important controversies of the late 1960’s should never be forgotten.