Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Detroit ’67 at Ensemble Theatre

A moderate production 
of a lackluster script

     Ensemble has provided so many wonderful nights in the theatre that it makes me appreciate them even more after a lukewarm one like the current production of Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau.  There’s a fascinating subject about working-class African-Americans running a business in a shadow or underground economy because they don’t have
the resources to participate in the accepted, Caucasian economy.  August Wilson wrote about this in Jitney (1982) and Terry McMillan touched on it in Mama (1987).  It was in an unlicensed basement bar in an African-American section of Detroit where police touched off what turned into the five day riots in the summer of 1967.  

     Detroit ’67 is a realistic, two-act, well-made play in the vein of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959).  The difference is that Raisin possesses richer language, a more interesting and complex plot, deeper characters, and greater stakes.  Otherwise, many of the story elements were the same:  money inherited from recently deceased parents; the son wanting to invest in a bar; the daughter wanting to invest in education; the money squandered or somehow lost; the reconciliation of the family.  At the intermission, the five of us threw out ideas for what would happen in the second act and we were pretty much on target.

Benjamin and Bentley*
     The play evokes the locale and era through the use of Motown recordings primarily (there is a Nina Simone single from that period as well).  The songs resonate poignantly, but Morisseau and director D. Lynn Meyers have to rely on them far too much because the writing is not up to par.  Shannon Rae Lutz’s props beautifully reflect that time and are constantly intriguing, especially when no one showed up on stage for about a minute in one of the later scenes.  The basement set displayed the hopes of a working class family trying to get out from under literally and metaphorically.  The skyline cyclorama was an elegant simile, but the upstairs landing set was unnecessary and clumsy – a first for designer Brian c. Mehring.  By not seeing the upstairs, there would have been some suspense about which character was coming downstairs.  Twenty minutes could have been cut if characters hadn’t had to incessantly go up and downstairs or fiddle with putting on music and if the script had been trimmed.  Mehring’s lighting was very strong; I wish Matt Callahan’s sound effects had been louder.  After all, this was a legendary riot, but it sounded like any afternoon downtown.  

Zina Camblin and Bryant Bentley*
     The actors did well, especially Bryant Bentley as the brother and Zina Camblin as the sister.  Burgess Byrd earned some laughs in the one-and-a-half note role of the sassy neighbor friend, but Darnell Pierre Benjamin could have been less understated as the family friend Sly.  Benjamin was terrific in Cock last year, but he might have needed more time to physicalize this character more.  Leslie Goddard, who played the white girl that was going to be trouble for the others, is a technically proficient actress who needed more time to find her character (three more days of rehearsal, maybe?).  Instead, she seemed a little blank in the first act, though always sincere – notice I didn’t say authentic or truthful – and went for broke in her big scene that seemed over the top in comparison.  

    The most memorable aspect of the performance was the elderly Caucasian woman accompanied by the younger African-American woman who chatted together for the entire production.  Sometimes they may have been reacting to something on stage, but not more than that.  The gentleman sitting beside them kept glaring their way, but they continued unabated.  The older woman seemed to know some of the staff at Ensemble so I don’t understand her (and her companion’s) utter lack of respect for the audience and the actors.  They were able to move lickety-split to get out of there when the requisite standing ovation began.  If only a room could be set up with a monitor showing the performance for audience members to intermittently watch while they continue their conversations, have some drinks, check their phones, and use the facilities; it could be an audience green room for those that are just so BLASTED, NARCISSISTICALLY SELFISH, AND NEEDY that they impinge upon others desperately trying to engage with the material.

*photos by Mikki Schaffner
Detroit '67 runs through April 5, 2015


Meridian13113 said...

I haven't yet seen the production you reviewed, but I can agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. Theatre management should throw these people out.

Dexter said...

Thank you!