THEATER REVIEW | “Detroit ’67” at Penumbra Theatre: A look back at the future with a great soundtrack

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The Penumbra Theater brings to life segments of history that many of us didn’t read in our textbooks. Detroit ’67 is an inside look at the race riots from the view of a basement in Detroit near the epicenter of the riots. Main characters Chelle and Lank have inherited the house from their parents. They host house parties in the basement to make money; the work is more regular and profitable than factory jobs.

The house parties feature Motown music that punctuates the action throughout. An interesting tangent in the play is the change over from records (45’s) to 8 track tapes – a movement that represents a leap into the future. In retrospect, it’s a leap that is symptomatic of the snapshot in time. We make the best decisions we can at the time; in hindsight we might make different choices. We might wait for cassettes. But in 1967, who knew that 8 track was going to be quickly surpassed by something even better? And who is to say that taking a leap into the future, isn’t worth the risk regardless of the outcome? Lank observes that “life ain’t about just keeping what you got; it’s about getting something new.”

That theme reverberates in other plot twists. When is it right to take a risk and when do you hold back? Who do you trust and who do you put at risk? And how does your skin color impact your risk?

I brought my favorite 10 year old date to the show. It was a powerful perspective for her to see. After the show, we talked a lot about history and what’s changed and what hasn’t. Director Shirley Jo Finney notes that “The events and circumstances inside the play do not read as a period frozen in history but as current events.” And for better or for worse, almost 50 years later, my 10 year old was not unfamiliar with the idea of a race riot. There’s a lot of today in the story and there’s a lot of opportunity to see that today is simply a later chapter in the same book and what happened in those earlier chapters frames today.

We talked about the historical references that were woven into the dialogue. (Like the Tuskegee experiments.) We discussed language and the historical context of a term like uppity because recent incidents indicate that many of us could use a lesson in historical context of language.

Most powerful I think were the speeches from Lank on how Detroit could become a Mecca if only the African Americans were allowed to grab the reins. Looking back at the history of Detroit, it makes you wonder what a difference that might have made to everyone and opens the door to recognizing again that today is just another chapter it’s not too late to open opportunities to everyone to help strengthen our communities on a micro and macro level.

The acting was superb. Jamecia Bennett as Bunny and James T. Alfred as Sly bring strong personalities to life in a way that brings a balance of levity to the show. (I would like to talk to Mary Farrell in wardrobe about where to score some of Bunny’s outfits.) Austene Van as Chelle and Darius Dotch as Lank deftly deepen their characters qualities to add that universality. They aren’t characters on the edge; they are everyday people battling the need to raise kids and pay bills with the urge to make things better for themselves, for strangers, for their community. They wrestle with rules and understanding which rules you follow out of self-preservation and which ones you follow out of internal sense of morality and what happens when those rules clash. And the actors do it without sentimentality or bravado but as a matter of course that is very believable.

The play is reflective at a time when I think we need to learn from history to change the course of our next few chapters. The language is not PG. Yet I think it’s a good show for kids; it portrays real events from an everyday viewpoint that is how I think it directly loops us from 1967 to present day. Some things have changed but people still do laundry, listen to music and make the best choices they can for their future. Maybe if we learn from a play like this we can save someone from buying an 8 track tape, or burning down bar or trusting too little or too much.

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