As Baltimore marks the first anniversary of the Freddie Gray riots, Center Stage presents a rewarding opportunity for people to examine the familiar issues — race, justice, family, poverty, lack of opportunity — from the perspective of another time and place.
Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit '67" has as its backdrop the unrest that broke out in that city almost 49 years ago. The spark was a raid by white police officers on an after-hours bar in a black neighborhood on July 23, 1967. Before it was over, the disturbance would claim 43 lives and damage or destroy more than 2,000 buildings.
Morisseau uses all of that to frame a story about five people who share the stressful summer, turning their concerns, mundane and lofty, into the stuff of absorbing theater. The play is vibrantly spiced by a soundtrack of Motown hits.
Siblings Lank (Amari Cheatom) and Chelle (Michelle Wilson) make extra money from a club, like the one the police raided, in the basement of the home they inherited from their parents. Lank's best buddy, Sly (Brian Marable), sees the two of them getting a leg up by buying an honest-to-goodness bar in the neighborhood.
A fourth character, the vivacious Bunny (Jessica Frances Dukes), is a close part of this group, but the fifth character isn't — a badly beaten-up young white woman named Caroline (Sarah Nealis). She was found dazed on the street by Lank and Sly and brought to the basement to recuperate; the men feared being suspects if they took her to a hospital.
The playwright reveals a keen sense of timing and structure as she develops her plot; she's adept at applying humor and sentiment along the way. There's a neat symmetrical element, too; each act involves the pivotal arrival of a battered body.
Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah is a Morisseau fan; he directed the world premiere of "Detroit '67" at the Public Theater in New York three years ago. For the Baltimore premiere, in association with Detroit Public Theatre (where the show moves next), he turned the reins over to Kamilah Forbes, who provides incisive direction.
A sterling cast digs deeply into the play, which unfolds on a richly detailed, two-tier set (Michael Carnahan). The atmosphere is enhanced at key moments by projections (Alex Basco Koch) that underline just how, in many ways, "Detroit '67" speaks meaningfully not just to Baltimore, but Any City '16.
When Morisseau's dialogue slips into cliche or gets a bit too aphoristic ("Life ain't just about keeping what you got"), the actors are ready, delivering the lines with such naturalness that you buy them. And even when you guess early on which person will not be alive at the end, you're still affected by the loss because the characterization is so genuine.
Wilson deftly conveys Chelle's impulse to hold on to things — the inheritance, her brother, her stack of scratchy 45s (she can't understand Lank's enthusiasm for this newfangled thing called 8-track). This character is all about worry, so whenever Wilson does let a smile cross her face, the effect is all the more radiant.
Lank, the dreamer who imagines a Detroit where you can get ahead without being labeled "uppity," is portrayed with equal parts subtlety and force by Cheatom. Marable brings the aptly named Sly to life with myriad nuances that charm and amuse, especially in his increasingly flirtatious scenes with Chelle.
Nealis does solid work in the role of the mysterious, somewhat underwritten Caroline, who stays in the house for protection and, possibly, more.
Dukes, sporting deliciously off-the-charts '60s fashions (Dede Ayite's costumes are terrific), eats up the stage with every appearance. Bunny, a mix of sex-kittenish and worldly wise, may be all too formulaic a character, but Dukes makes her real, right down to every sensual shake — when she puts her backfield in motion, no one is safe.