Playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Dominique Morisseau can weave a richer story with a handful of characters than most people can tell with a cast of dozens. This makes her a great match for TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas: a small space with a worldly audience. Set against the backdrop of the historic bloody clash between the Detroit police and Black residents, their current production of Morisseau ’s Detroit 67 is all too current in its themes. To bring in some extra cash, Lank and his sister Chelle are running an off-licensed after-hours bar in their basement. It is similar to the one that was violently raided by police, sparking five days of rioting that ended in over 40 deaths and thousands of arrests. As in the play, then-governor Romney had to call in the National Guard and President Johnson provided two army divisions to restore peace.
Though Morisseau keeps the action confined to the siblings’ basement, she uses exposition sparingly and instead explores the social and emotional impact of the turmoil outside through well-drawn relationships. We learn that though they are close, Chelle (a simmering Devereau Chumrau) and Lank (Tenisi Davis moving fluidly between tenderness and fury) have conflicting opinions about how to use their small inheritance. Lank is encouraged in his riskier plan by his close friend Sly (smooth Christopher Alexander Chukwueke). But his downgrading of the safety net provided by family and friends is challenged by Caroline (pixyish Jenna Krasowski), a young white woman who literally stumbles into his life. The quintet is rounded out by Bunny (crowd favorite Na’Tosha De’Von), who relishes all that life brings her way. Through this battle between dreaming big and playing it safe, Morisseau tells a story that covers race, class, and the lies of the American Dream in a deeply personal and genuine way.
Well-timed comebacks and the use of uplifting Motown tunes provide light around the shadows. The songs of the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and others form a bridge between the characters and the audience and momentarily erase all barriers. It is the soundtrack of a particular time and place, but also a connector to our world.
The staging by director Dexter J. Singleton is somewhat constrained by Baron Pugh’s detail-oriented set. Look closely at the walls, and Chelle’s and Lank’s childhoods envelop them. The essential bar, worn furniture, and decor lend an appropriate hemmed-in vibe to the action. Costume designer Azalea Fairley visually differentiates the characters, giving Bunny bold prints and highest heels, dressing Chelle in muted tones and flats, and displaying Caroline’s petite curves in Chelle’s cast-offs. Sound design by Bill Toles expands on the wondrous playlist.
I deeply appreciate the considerate and inclusive opportunity TheatreSquare provides to participate in their varied season. Their modest four-camera set-up always provides an engaging home experience complete with a warm welcome from their staff and volunteers. Each streaming pass is good for 24 hours. The instructions are easy to execute and the recording is of above-average quality.
As the first piece in Morisseau’s Detroit Project, Detroit ’67 is a thrilling introduction to her potent work. It is available on-stage and via streaming through Sunday, November 6. Runtime is approximately 2 ½ hours including intermission. Tickets are available at https://tix.theatre2.org/events and range from $37-$57 for the live show at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville and $25-$35 for individual and household streaming passes.