Arts & Culture

Theater review: PlayMakers’ ‘Detroit ’67’ is a sobering commentary

From left, Tangela Large as Bunny and Rachel Christopher as Chelle in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Detroit ‘67” by Dominique Morisseau.
From left, Tangela Large as Bunny and Rachel Christopher as Chelle in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Detroit ‘67” by Dominique Morisseau. Jon Gardiner

Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67” takes place during that city’s July 1967 tensions between police and the African-American community. The play follows one struggling black family as its dreams are shattered by the deadly five-day riot that ensued. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production offers an impressive cast whose engaging portrayals help mask the uneven, overly long script.

Lank and Chelle are brother and sister living in their deceased parents home. They run an illegal after-hours bar in their basement while Lank is unemployed and to help Chelle send her son through college. Lank wants to use their savings to join best friend Sly in buying a legitimate bar, but Chelle and close friend Bunny object to the risky plan, especially with rising police harassment.

One night, Lank and Sly find a passed out, battered white woman (Caroline) in the street, whom Lank insists they take home to recover. After coming to, she’s reluctant to reveal her past but needs a place to stay, which Lank offers over Chelle’s objections. The spark between Caroline and Lank only complicates a dangerous situation.

Director Lisa Rothe gets vivid characterizations from the actors playing the close-knit friends. Myles Bullock invests Lank with admirable conviction and hope, displaying deep love for his sister despite their clashes. Rachel Christopher gives Chelle appropriate worry and wariness that covers a lonely heart needing companionship.

Charlie Hudson III’s bravado and soul as Sly are endearing while Tangela Large’s wisecracking, pleasure-seeking Bunny quickly becomes an audience favorite. Katy Castaldi’s Caroline starts off intriguingly mysterious but there’s little chemistry with Bullock and a coolness that doesn’t invite sympathy, after her circumstances are revealed.

Morisseau is best at creating believable relationships among friends and family, supplying a number of humorous and affecting scenes. But these often relax the plot’s thrust, along with repetitious dialog and scenes that take too long to make their points. Director Rothe’s leisurely pacing further stretches time in the nearly three-hour production.

Lee Savage’s rundown basement setting and McKay Coble’s funky costumes anchor the play’s period, as do the snippets of Motown hits during some scenes.

The play’s subject matter serves as sobering commentary on the causes of current racial tensions. The production’s value lies in its poignant depiction of the devastating effect of such tensions on individual lives.

Details

What: “Detroit ’67” by PlayMakers Repertory

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21-23, 25, 27-30, Oct. 1; 2 p.m. Sept. 25, Oct. 1-2

Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill

Tickets: $15-$62

Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org

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