Sometimes you can try too hard to make people care, to tell them “This is important – this is vital.” Such is the case with Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, which recently opened at Hartford Stage. The play focuses on a black family living in Detroit during the 1967 race riots, and it should be compelling, but it isn’t. The playwright works very hard to draw in the audience, to make those staring up at Riccardo Hernandez’s single set care about the characters, but, by and large, given the structure of the play, the audience remains aloof. Quite simply, you want to care, to be involved, but there’s not that much to care about.
If you ever took Drama 101 in college, one of the first things you learned was that, for a play to work, there has to be conflict. That is, one character wants something and another character is set on thwarting him or her from achieving the goal. So, is there such conflict in Detroit ’67? Yes, of a sort, for you see, Lank (Johnny Ramey) wants to use inherited money to buy a bar, while his sister, Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), opposes the idea. She wants to keep things safe, the way they have always been – hence her use of a phonograph to play scratched 45 rpm records. Lank wants to move forward, which is why he and his friend, Sly (Will Cobbs) bring a rather bulky 8-track tape player into the house. It takes a good deal of time to establish this (the production runs over two hours) and, to be honest, it really doesn’t generate much tension. Morisseau, perhaps realizing this, introduces a new character, and it is here that the play goes slightly off the rails.
Mid-way through the first act, the door to the cellar opens and down the steps come Sly and Lank carrying a body. It’s Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white woman. They place the comatose body on the couch. Soon Chelle appears and asks the rather obvious question: “What the hell is she doing here?” The audience might well ask the same question. We learn, eventually, that Caroline, a “waitress” at a strip club, had been assaulted by her boyfriend, a cop, and wandering on the street in a daze, she was seen by Lank and Sly, and Lank, being the good Samaritan that he is, bundled her into their truck and brought her home. Really?
So, Caroline eventually regains consciousness and reveals that she has no place to go, so Lank, obviously smitten by this white woman, suggests that she stay with his family for a while. Chelle initially objects, but finally suggests that if Caroline is to stay she needs to work, for the brother and sister run a sort-of after-hours club in their basement. Caroline agrees (Really??) and is thus charged with putting potato chips into bowls and doing other menial tasks (there’s a message here, but I’m not sure what it is).
Le Vine’s character is initially dazed by her boyfriend’s assault. The daze wears off, but not the sense of “What the hell am I doing here in this play?” Le Vine, given the character she is asked to portray, seems at sea most of the time, dutifully delivering her lines but unsure of what her character is contributing to the thrust of the play. Not her fault. The fault lies in the fact that, I suspect, Morriseau is also unsure why she has created this character, or what Bunny (Nyahale Allie), a family friend, is also supposed to be contributing to the play.
Then there are the race riots, which brought Federal troops and tanks to the city, their presence captured by Nicole Pearce’s lighting and Karin Graybash’s sound. Buildings are being burned, people are being shot and, yes, it affects the family we have been with, but it, oddly enough, seems somewhat beside the point. It’s not that these were not horrific times and that racial tensions didn’t came to a boil, but it all seems unrelated to what we’ve been asked to pay attention to, the disconnect being exacerbated by Caroline’s running in and out – a comely white woman can go wherever she wants in a black neighborhood during a race riot? I mean, again, really?
The problem with the play is best captured in its final moments, for there has been a loss, a death, that directly affects Chelle, and she grieves, but she is not allowed to grieve alone, for the lighting shifts and there is gunfire and the sound of growling tanks to accentuate her grief. We are asked to understand that the thin stitches that hold our society together are being torn apart but, it’s a theatrical, over-kill moment, manipulative in a most obvious way. Again, we are being instructed to care when the play has done little to make us want relate to these characters. Yes, there’s sound and fury, but what, in the end, does it signify? When, at the end of Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke feeds Daisy a piece of pie, our heart breaks and what the play has been about is confirmed. When Chelle grieves, we’re not sure what we should feel except, perhaps, relief that the play is finally over.
Detroit ’67 runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org