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Detroit '67

There is perhaps no greater example of urban decline in the United States, with its attendant racist policies, than the City of Detroit. As a native of that once thriving metropolis, playwright Dominique Morisseau has her hand on the pulse of the notorious, libertine 12th Street neighborhood on the eve of the largest civil disturbance of twentieth century America.

(Left to right) Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle and Ilasiea Gray as Bunny
(L to R) Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle and Ilasiea Gray as Bunny
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
Nearby, in the unfinished, but inviting basement of sister and brother Chelle (Jada Suzanne Dixon) and Lank's (Cajardo Lindsey) home, is a "blind pig," or unlicensed bar, one of many in the 'hood. A monaural record player spins Motown singles from the likes of The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and The Four Tops. Pictures of some of these artists, as well as those of Joe Louis, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali adorn one of the walls.

Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle
Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Chelle's larger-than-life friend, Bunny (Ilasiea Gray), sashays in, with party-girl enthusiasm and a cornucopia of charm that primes us for the party. Then Lank's friend, Sly (Frank Taylor Green), a smooth operator and ideas man with a passion for Chelle, shows up with the booze, accompanied by Lank, with a new contraption—an 8-track player—that he has just purchased.

Cajardo Lindsey as Lank
Cajardo Lindsey as Lank
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Chelle criticizes Lank for splurging on this alien device, being quite content with her one-track, one-speaker set up, despite the fact that her vinyl 45s skip incessantly. Dixon imbues Chelle, who is Lank's older sister, with a deep current that we sense is forged from more than her share of sorrows. She is the responsible one, protective of the house and thrifty with the money their parents left them. It's not that Lank is irresponsible; but he is always searching for ways to create an enterprise in which he can have a real stake—something he can call his own, take pride in, and that will support him, his sister, his friends, and the local economy. Lindsey's Lank is multifaceted in this way, enjoying good times, but deeply committed to finding a way out of being forced to work in the auto plants for the man. Green infuses Sly, Lank's best buddy, with the savoire faire of a keen observer of human nature, who has seen a few scams in his day. Gray keeps everyone loose, including the audience, with her gift for comic relief.

Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle and Frank Taylor Green as Sly
Jada Suzanne Dixon as Chelle
and Frank Taylor Green as Sly
Photo: Michael Ensminger
One night, Lank and Sly carry into the basement what appears to be a lifeless body of a white woman, Caroline (Anastasia Davidson), who turns out to have been beaten by her boyfriend, a white cop, one of the many bullies who fill the Detroit Police Department and other such organizations. Chelle fears that the presence of a white woman will bring down the heat on their unlicensed honky tonk; but, despite these misgivings, agrees to let her stay for a week, while they nurse her back to health, if Caroline will help out with the work. Davidson deftly juggles Caroline's disparate aspects—her rough and tumble street smarts mixed with a sweet innocence and idealism.

Cajardo Lindsey as Lank and Anastasia Davidson as Caroline
Cajardo Lindsey as Lank
and Anastasia Davidson as Caroline
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Morisseau insightfully shows how the poisonous atmosphere of American society—cultivated by the white power structure employing policemen who arrest blacks to vent their racism—can drive a wedge into even the most genuinely colorblind relationships. But as we step back from the particulars of this insightful, well-written, and impressively performed piece, we see that the larger the picture, the worse it gets.

"Over the course of five days, the Detroit police and fire departments, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard, and the US Army were involved in quelling what became the largest civil disturbance of twentieth century America. The crisis resulted in forty-three deaths, hundreds of injuries, almost seventeen hundred fires, and over seven thousand arrests. The insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation. For much of the twentieth century, the city of Detroit was a booming manufacturing center, attracting workers—both black and white—from southern states. This diversity aggravated civil strife, and the Race Riot of 1943 highlighted the racial fault lines that crisscrossed the city. Throughout the 1950s, homeowners’ associations, aided by mayors Albert Cobo and Louis Miriani, battled against integrating neighborhoods and schools.

"Deindustrialization within the city limits took many jobs to outlying communities, even as a number of auto companies went out of business. The east side of Detroit alone lost over 70,000 jobs in the decade following World War II. Construction of the city’s freeways, newer housing, and the prospect of further integration—due to the demolition of the city’s two main black neighborhoods, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—caused many whites to depart for the suburbs. From 1950 to 1960, Detroit lost almost 20 percent of its population."

—Detroit Historical Society, Encyclopedia of Detroit, "Uprising of 1967," https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/uprising-1967

Of course, Detroit is just one example of what has going on in many places across the U.S. There were 300 riots between the East coast riots of 1964 and the Detroit riot in July of 1967 ("The Great Rebellion, A Socio-economic Analysis of the 1967 Detroit Riot," http://www.detroits-great-rebellion.com/Index.html). More recently (2014), we saw the same pattern in St. Louis (Ferguson), Missouri, except that the strategy of the powers-that-be has evolved, with the internationalization and militarization of the police. Finally, with the bankrupcy of Detroit in 2013, and the poisoning of Flint, Michigan's water, we now see the endgame of the white capitalist warlords in regards to large urban minority populations, as we explore here. Couple these factors with the sophisticated total surveillance technology now being employed in all major cities, and the prospects for ending the slaughter are dim, unless the consciousness and conscience of the ruling classes is abruptly altered.

The regional premiere of Curious Theatre Company's presentation of Detroit '67, by Dominique Morisseau, runs through February 24th. For tickets: curioustheatre.org/event/detroit-67.

Bob Bows



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