Detroit '67 — Image courtesy Penumbra Theatre

Detroit ’67

Penumbra Theatre
Directed by Shirley Jo Finney

“Why can’t I just do what I do without it having to be something else?” Such is the plea of Lank Poindexter (Darius Dotch), one of the lead characters in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, currently on stage at the Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul. It’s a fair request, but not one that will be granted. For one thing, Lank is a black man at a time and place in which black men’s actions are subjected to intense scrutiny and policing. And for another, he is a character in a play that examines a pivotal historical event through the lens of the personal, and thus he cannot avoid being a little bit of a symbol, or at least a carrier of symbols.

Detroit '67 — Image courtesy Penumbra TheatreDetroit ’67 takes place before and during the riots that shook Morisseau’s home city in the year of the play’s title, which were sparked by a police raid on an illegal after-hours nightclub. In the play, Lank and his sister Chelle (Austene Van) run a competing club in the basement of the home they have inherited from their parents. Though Chelle is only looking to bring in some extra money to help put her son through college, Lank has bigger plans; he wants to go legit by buying a neighborhood bar with his friend Sly (James T. Alfred), a financial risk Chelle is reluctant to let him take. While the siblings’ disagreement is unfolding, someone new comes in to their household: Caroline (Elizabeth Efteland), a mysterious white girl whom Lank and Sly find one night beat up and passed out in the street and who offers to serve drinks to Lank and Chelle’s guests in exchange for room and board. The cast is rounded out by Chelle’s friend Bunny (Jamecia Bennett), who makes her living as a sort of unofficial concierge for her neighborhood and who has a thing for Lank.

Detroit ’67 takes place entirely in Chelle and Lank’s basement, with only a staircase and a shallow window as portals to the outside world. The events leading up to the riots, and then the riots themselves, are talked about but not seen, keeping us focused on the reactions of a few people whose lives are being touched by events beyond their control. Morisseau is most successful at conveying this personal angle in the play’s many two-character scenes, in which she gives the characters room to expose different aspects of themselves to each other. When they are gathered together in larger groups, on the other hand, they are more apt to speechify, often seeming to talk past each other and directly to the audience. Maybe this is intentional, but it is a little disconcerting.

Detroit '67 — Image courtesy Penumbra TheatreIn any case, all of the actors do an admirable job making their roles come to life. Chelle is probably the play’s most multifaceted character — mature and cautious, yet still playful and sometimes vulnerable — and Van weaves it all together into a relatable whole. Dotch succeeds at making Lank’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for black capitalism temptingly infectious, while Alfred and Bennett help us gradually come to see Sly and Bunny as more than just the sidekicks they appear to be at first. Meanwhile, Efteland lends an appropriate fuzziness to the identity of Caroline, a character who seems to become, in turn, whatever each of the other characters expects her to be. Also notable is the scenic design work of Matthew LeFebvre, who has pulled together all kinds of vintage signifiers (including a granny-square afghan that appears to have come straight off the set of Roseanne) into a basement that still feels lived-in.

Given recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere, there is an obvious timeliness to Detroit ’67‘s themes. The characters’ actions are shaped, but not determined, by racism, economic precariousness, and police abuse. In the end, neither they nor the play have any answers, but for the most part these topics are addressed with nuance and sympathy. Detroit ’67 plays at the Penumbra through May 17.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.