The first thing anybody does in Dominique Morisseau’s drama “Detroit ’67,” which Signature Theatre of Arlington is streaming online on Marquee TV through September 16, is put the Temptation’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” on a record player. That’s the song, of course, that inspired the title of the 2019 Broadway jukebox musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” for which Morisseau wrote the book. “Ain’t Too Proud” is scheduled to reopen in Broadway’s Imperial Theater in October – some three months before Morisseau’s play “Skeleton Crew” debuts on Broadway at the Samuel Friedman.
I loved the 2016 Off-Broadway production of “Skeleton Crew,” which is about a group of struggling auto workers in Detroit, and is the third of Morisseau’s trilogy about her hometown, the scripts of which are collected together in The Detroit Project: Three Plays.
It is reason enough to see “Detroit ‘67” that it is the earliest play in the trilogy, and that it weaves in snippets from a whole catalogue of Temptations and other Motown hits, songs the playwright employs symbolically, sometimes poignantly. There are other reasons too: The play offers a thought-provoking perspective on the Detroit riots of 1967, and their impact on a small group of friends and family – an exploration that earned for the play the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.
“Detroit ‘67,” a full production filmed on stage, takes place entirely in the basement of the childhood home inherited by Chelle (Stori Ayers) and her brother Lank (JaBen Early), who use the place on occasion as a private (unlicensed) after hours club to make a little extra money. The two have also inherited some money from their parents, which, it becomes clear, is a source of some friction between the two. Lank would like to use the money to go into business with his best friend Sly (Greg Alverez Reid), buying a real bar. Chelle, a widow with a son in college, prefers to keep the money as a nest egg. Their different worldviews seem symbolized by Chelle’s preference for her old record player and her scratchy 45s, while Lank has just bought an expensive new eight-track tape machine.
The play begins as a comedy thanks to the playful banter between Chelle and her outrageous friend Bunny (Valeka Jessica.) But two events intrude to turn “Detroit 67” into a serious drama about social issues.
One is the riot, which begins in the background and eventually develops into a foregrounded personal tragedy. It’s fascinating, and resonant, to hear these characters scoff at the depiction of the violence as a race riot; they see it as a manifestation of police brutality and corruption.
The other event is a fifth character, whom Sly and Lank bring into the basement wrapped in a blanket. She is a white woman (Emily Kester), whom they found dazed and bruised on the street on their way home, and brought to the basement to nurse her back to health, because it would be dangerous for two Black men to bring a white woman to the hospital. She eventually tells them her name, Caroline, but not anything about what happened or why until late in the play.
Nearly everything about this subplot feels implausible. That includes the supposed growing affection between Lank and Caroline, which may have worked better in a production where we could see some unspoken chemistry between the two.
In general, this production, though ably directed by Candis C. Jones, frankly doesn’t measure up to the ones I’ve seen of Morisseau’s work in New York. Her later scripts are also savvier. “Skeleton Crew” is, if anything, more poignant and more pointed, without any flashy turns in the plot.
But there are moments in “Detroit ‘67” that are moving and insightful, many involving Chelle’s difficult navigation of her feelings, helped along by Ayers’ solid performance.
Even the dubious Lank-Caroline link leads to a compelling scene in which Chelle complains to Bunny: “I see him look at her, and it makes me feel like we ain’t enough. Like he sees something better in her than he sees in us. Throw us out like a scratched record. But ain’t we got no value?”
“Course,” Bunny replies. “Little scratch give you character.”
And – if I may continue this inspired metaphor — turntables have made a comeback, scratches and all, while eight-track tape players are just one more smooth modern machine that hasn’t lasted. Can we be talking about theater here too?