Monday, February 25, 2019

Another Time, Another Planet: Detroit ‘67

Johnny Ramey and Myxolydia Tyler in Detroit '67. (Photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Detroit ’67 (at Hartford Stage) is part of Dominique Morriseau’s ambitious trilogy about African American life in Detroit; the others, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew, are about, respectively, the jazz scene in the post-war years and the decimation of the auto industry after the economic breakdown of 2008. Detroit ’67, of course, depicts the city at its nadir, during the riots and the police violence that reinforced the racial line and shocked the nation. Morrisseau’s instinct for dramatic material is unerring, but having seen productions of all three plays, I have to say that only one, Skeleton Crew, works. She doesn’t have any feeling for either of the two historical periods she’s chosen for the other two: the characters are two-dimensional and you don’t believe in them as representatives of their eras. The muumuus that the costume designer, Dede M. Ayite, has put on one of the two women in the cast, Nyahale Allie, her Afro wig and the Motown soundtrack tell us this is supposed to be 1967, but I didn’t buy it for a moment.

The dialogue in Skeleton Crew is utterly convincing, but the characters in Detroit ‘67 – brother-and-sister orphans, Lank (Johnny Ramey) and Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), who inherited their childhood home; Lank’s best buddy Sly (Will Cobbs) and Chelle’s best pal Bunny (Allie); and a young white woman named Caroline (Ginna Le Vine) with a mysterious past whom Lank and Sly rescue after a severe beating – slide in and out of an overwritten pseudo-poetic style. Vine gets stuck with the worst of it: a conversation between Caroline and Lank where she describes her responses to various black singers (Mary Wells’s voice sounds like cashmere and so on) made me embarrassed for the actress, and she has an even worse speech near the end of the play, to Chelle, about some zone outside racial boundaries where she and Chelle’s brother meet. Morisseau seems to have borrowed this idea from “Somewhere” in West Side Story. When, in the Motown discussion, Lank repeatedly voices his astonishment that Caroline listens to “Negro music,” it’s as if we’d been teleported into another musical, Memphis, set in the early fifties. Surely Morisseau must know that the whole country was dancing to Motown in 1967?

When Morisseau isn’t comfortable with the setting, she tends to revert to melodrama, and the director of the Hartford Stage production, Jade King Carroll, cranks it up. The style of the show appears to be Viewpoints, Anne Bogart’s kinetic, artificial approach, which encourages the actors to ignore the tenets of psychological realism and overstate everything, so instead of Detroit in 1967 it often seems to be taking place on Mars. By the end of the nearly three-hour running time, I felt wrung out, and not in a good way. Kathryn Bigelow covered this black mark in modern American history in 2017 in a superb movie called Detroit that received little attention and closed fast. Morisseau should check it out.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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