Lessons from a half-century ago still resonate today, as Jubilee Theatre’s latest production makes clear. Examining a time in American history that exacerbated racial tensions and dramatically altered public perceptions, “Detroit ’67” is a character study unfolding during the ’67 riots. Helping set the scene is a vibrant soundtrack of classic Motown songs.
During a summer when 159 race riots erupted across the country, the 1967 Detroit riot was the worst. It started when police raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar, and escalated to the governor eventually ordering the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit and the president sending in infantry units from the U.S. Army. A couple thousand buildings were destroyed and over 7,000 people were arrested. The riot ended with 1,189 people wounded and 43 dead.
“Detroit ’67,” which premiered in Harlem in 2013, was written by Dominique Morisseau, a rising star playwright who received the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.
Jubilee’s production, directed by Jiles R. King II, is augmented by American soul essentials, like 1960’s “Shop Around” from Motown’s first group, The Miracles; “Dancing in the Street” from Martha and the Vandellas in 1964; and 1966 R&B smash “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by The Temptations. These tunes are happy, harmonious, and perfect for dancing.
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And the classic songs help illustrate just how much America changed in the “Long, hot summer of 1967.” Recorded that same year, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “I Don’t Live Today” eventually roars out of the speakers. Exponentially more intense than the Motown tracks that dominate the score, the song magnificently signals the harsh new realities that lead to a massive transformation of public opinion.
“Detroit ’67” relies heavily on this music to transport the audience decades into the past. From the first scene to the last, the importance of these songs is constantly emphasized by a vinyl record skipping on a turntable, the advent of 8-track tapes, characters dancing and having reflective moments listening to music.
Set in July, the story begins in Detroit before the riots, on a deceptively lighter note. To help make ends meet, siblings Chelle (played by JuNene K) and Lank (Bryan Pitts) set up the basement of the home they inherited from their parents as an after-hours bar.
The heart and soul of the play is Chelle, who simply wants happiness and stability for her brother, as well as her son away at college. Lank, on the other hand, laments about the limitations placed on black people in Detroit and has big plans to open a proper bar.
His sidekick, Sly (Orlando Valentino), becomes a possible love interest for Chelle, but ultimately represents tragedy. Chelle’s boozy and shameless friend Bunny (Cherish Robinson) offers plenty of brazen quips to offset the drama with comic relief.
But the tone quickly shifts and racial tension starts building. The siblings clash when Lank and Sly bring home a beaten, unconscious white woman whom they discovered nearby in the middle of the night. Mysterious and troubled, Caroline (Katreeva Phillips) is allowed to stay and given work at the after-hours club while recovering. But Chelle quickly recognizes her as a threat to the family’s safety and Caroline also becomes a symbol of Lank’s desire to break boundaries.
The themes of inequality, racism, police brutality and corruption — still omnipresent today — are introduced shortly before and after the riot erupts. But this entire story unfolds in the basement. The stage is set with furniture from that time period and the costume design is vintage clothing reminiscent of thrift store duds that have been going in and out of style for decades.
The tension continues to escalate as these characters feud and the riot explodes with unimaginable violence.
By the end, the sweetness of those Motown songs becomes a devastating reminder of happier times.
Through Feb. 25
506 Main St., Fort Worth
Tickets are $26 and up at the box office, 817-338-4411 or jubileetheatre.org.