Center Stage's 'Detroit '67' draws obvious parallels

I wanted to like Center Stage's production of "Detroit '67" more than I did. Playwright Dominique Morisseau's kitchen-sink drama (well, technically, basement-sink, I guess since the play takes place in a basement rec room that doubles as an after-hours club) recounts the story of a black family swept up in the Detroit riot.

The setting is rife with potential. It is 1967, Motown's heyday, and a brother and sister run their under-the-radar—and illegal—after hours club out the family's 12th Street home that they inherited from their hard working auto plant parents. The brother, Lank (played by "Django Unchained" and "Newlyweeds" actor Amari Cheatom), wants to take what remains of their small nest egg to buy a legal bar that's for sale up the street, certain that it is time for black entrepreneurs to have a legitimate stake in the largely white economy of the neighborhood. His sister, Chelle (Michelle Wilson), wants to simply go-along to get-along, fearful of challenging the status quo.

Then suddenly—or what should be "suddenly" but in actuality takes a really long time because setting up all this tension leans heavily on a slew of unnecessary exposition—a white woman is dropped in their laps. Turns out Lank and a friend had been driving around late at night when this white woman, mysteriously beat up by an unknown assailant, stumbled toward the car. They picked her up, but she passed out in the car so they bring her home to recover on the couch in their basement (love interest, writ large). Now, just as their city is erupting in riots around them, they are stuck with this woman, who turns out to be a Motown fan and thus a kindred spirit but still a huge liability, being white and all, in their basement. The city burns around them.

Clearly Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah picked the play for this season because he figured it would offer Baltimore audiences a historical perspective into the uprising and issues surrounding police brutality on a local and national level. (He directed the first production at New York's Public Theatre in 2013.) And, yes, the parallels are obviously there—the Detroit uprising was set off by the antagonistic relationship between city residents and police—but the play never really offers us new insight into the events of then or now. As a result, the production teeters precariously on the edge of dull…and how can that be in a play about riots and race and Detroit in 1967?

Morisseau's characters are flat and ultimately not terribly interesting and, except for extremely obvious moments of didacticism, they are lousy mouthpieces for change (in the brother's case)—or the arguments against it (the sister's case). There is no grit; there is no edge.

There's also no real racial tension, which is bizarre for a play about what is commonly referred to (wrongly) as a race riot. Caroline, the white woman (Sarah Nealis), is politically progressive, and despite her complicity with the police, is still culturally—and romantically—attracted to Lank. The political and cultural complexity of a relationship between an African-American man and a white woman in 1967 is alluded to—Lank's sister takes a just-say-no stance—but not deeply explored.

It's probably not fair to blame all of this on the script; the production is also oddly over-produced and that doesn't help matters. Set designer Michael Carnahan probably felt a need to fill the gaping hole that is the main stage theatre at Towson University (Center Stage's temporary home while undergoing massive renovations in their permanent Calvert Street location), but it's the wrong venue for this play, and Carnahan's set does little to offset this. An after-hours club in the basement of a small house in Detroit's Westside should feel low-ceiling'd and claustrophobic. The production's two-story set—complete with an upstairs playing area that is rarely used during the show—feels unnecessarily expansive and ostentatious.

Nonetheless, the cast soldiers on, doing the best it can with a script that offers no surprises, eschewing subtle foreshadowing for bullhorn announcement about plot twists to come. (At the end of a winding monologue by one character, the person accompanying me to opening night leaned over and whispered, "Well, he's gonna be dead in a minute." In 10 minutes he was.) Michelle Wilson is strong as the protagonist trying to keep her household together (Wilson originated the role in Kwei-Armah's New York version), and Brian Marable plays the role of her luckless romantic interest artfully. But the real standout is Jessica Frances Dukes as Bunny, a family friend who flits in and out of basement and steals the show with her sexy, larger-than-life performance, and costume designer Dede Ayite's pitch-perfect pantsuits.

Ultimately, though, cool costumes, an expansive set, and other bells and whistles don't raise the show much above a TV drama. And by the time we get to the climax when Alex Basco Koch's vivid projections—which up until that moment consisted of beautifully terrifying newsreel footage of Detroit's 12th Street riot—shift to include contemporary clips from Black Lives Matter protests, the whole thing starts to feel too obvious. As indicated by the inclusion of Anna Deveare Smith's "Notes from the Field" and the "My America Too" project, Center Stage is wisely trying to find ways to address the thorny politics of contemporary urban America in its 52nd season. But "Detroit '67" doesn't add much to the canon.

"Detroit '67" runs through May 8 at Center Stage's temporary home at the Mainstage Theatre at Towson University. More for information, visit centerstage.org.

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