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Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Detroit ’67’ Spins Motown into History

Three cast members sit in different positions onstage during Theatre Charlotte's production of Detroit 67
The cast of ‘Detroit ’67.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Baked into many great American plays is the notion that dreaming big, striving for the golden apple of success, is a kind of latter-day hubris, sure to be tragically quashed and beaten down. Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was a grim example of such a tragic hero, dreaming of owning a liquor store in Chicago during the 1950s.

It was hard for me not to think of Walter Lee’s beatdown — and paradoxically, the soaring success of Sidney Poitier, the breakthrough actor who portrayed him — as Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 unfolded at Theatre Charlotte, where it’s running through June 11. 

Tautly directed by Ron McClelland and superbly designed by Chris Timmons, Morisseau’s work is darker and bloodier than Hansberry’s classic but emphatically more hopeful. Even with the background of the Detroit race riots of 1967, the pride of Black culture never leaves our eardrums for long as a clunky old record turntable, replaced by a slicker 8-track player and a pair of bookshelf loudspeakers, cranks out the hits of Motown’s famed music machine.

Come on, David Ruffin! The Temptations! Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Mary Wells. Martha and the Vandellas. The Four Tops. Gladys Knight and the Pips. Marvin Gaye. 

A man with a large Afro stands hugging a woman from behind
Graham Williams as Sly, hugging Shinitra Lockett as Chelle in ‘Detroit ’67.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Morisseau’s protagonist, Lank, and his sister Chelle are trying to upgrade their unlicensed basement bar so that it will become more competitive with other after-hours speakeasies when Sly, Lank’s best friend and a numbers runner, offers him an opportunity to buy into a legit bar. History lesson: a police raid on one of the unlicensed bars Lank and Chelle are seeking to emulate triggered the Detroit riots, the worst in 20th century America until another shining example of policing, the Rodney King riots in L.A., eclipsed them in 1992.

While the riots rage and Michigan Gov. George Romney is calling in the National Guard, Lank and Sly are striving to scout out their hoped-for property and close on a deal — against Chelle’s wishes. Meanwhile, a second hubris slowly develops as Lank shelters a lovely white woman, Caroline, who has been battered and is mysteriously linked with the white underworld. She’s actually in more mortal danger than Lank.

Despite mutual suspicions, Caroline and Lank are drawn to each other. But they bond over Motown music and they are both capable of busting a dance move.

A white woman shakes a Black man's hand while a Black woman looks on disapprovingly
Chandler Pelliciotta as Caroline meets Devin Clark’s Lank. (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

The rioting in the Motor City was a prelude to the Black Power demonstrations at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. We can also view them as a precipitating factor leading to the pride-filled Summer of Soul celebrations in Harlem and the rapprochement between the races on the musical scene that accelerated at the gloriously chaotic and inspiring Woodstock Festival of 1969 — for so many of us the decade-defining event of the ‘60s.

So Detroit ’67 not only captures a city in turmoil, it echoes the prime crosscurrents of that era, the struggle of Black people for their legitimate rights, the backlash from white people and government, and the mainstreaming of Motown as it breaks into pop culture. And by the way, Sidney Poitier’s To Sir With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were both released in 1967. The question of whether Blacks were making significant progress, suffice it to say, was very much up in the air as we watch this action at the Queens Road Barn.

Running an underground business together, Lank and Chelle are more advanced in their autonomy, street smarts, and connections than Walter Lee and his sister Beneatha were, still living under their mother’s roof with Walter Lee’s wife and child. Pushback against Lank’s feasible but difficult dream comes entirely from Chelle, who can realize deep down that continuing to run an illegal operation is also a risky choice.

Morisseau, McClelland, and Shinitra Lockett, making her acting debut as Chelle, all seem to have made this same calculation. So Lockett seems noticeably more vehement in her opposition toward Lank’s romance with Caroline than in her objections toward his business venture with Sly. On the business end, Sly’s persistence and charm in pursuit of Chelle’s affections bodes well for his deal-making prospects, another softening factor, for Lockett occasionally shows us that the slickster is making headway.

A forlorn white woman looks on as a Black woman speaks in Theatre Charlotte's stage production of Detroit 67
Chandler Pelliciotta as Caroline (left) and Shinitra Lockett as Chelle in ‘Detroit ’67.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Because we see Graham Williams is so composed and self-assured as Sly, we can begin to see Lank as acting audaciously and responsibly. Yet there’s enough shiftiness mixed with Williams’ confidence for us to retain Walter-Lee misgivings about their venture, especially when the riots and the National Guard are thrown into the mix.

Devin Clark, one of Charlotte’s best and most consistent performers for more than nine years, gives Lank a stressed and urgent edge. He’s not as regal and commanding as he was portraying Brutus last summer, but he’s far more spontaneous and charismatic.

Chandler Pelliciotta, in their Theatre Charlotte debut, brings a bit of shy diffidence to Caroline that meshes well with her story. Her worldly swagger has obviously been dealt a severe blow as she wakens, bruised and disoriented, in the basement of a Black man’s home she has never seen before. While Lank is drawn to her and wishes to protect her — we aren’t always sure which of these impulses is in play — Chelle has a couple of good reasons to wish her gone.

Not the least of these is the trouble Caroline is in with the people who have battered her with impunity. The trouble might pursue her and find her at this fledgling underground speakeasy. It’s an awkward position tinged with risqué allure, but Pelliciotta’s performance leans more into the awkwardness, their glamor far less in the forefront than their fearfulness — for Caroline herself and for her protectors.

A woman standing up hands a drink to a woman sitting down
Germôna Sharp as Bunny (left) and Lockett as Chelle in ‘Detroit ’67.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

You can probably name 15 Black sitcoms that have characters like Chelle’s mismatched chum, Bunny: sexy, flirty, quick-witted, and imperturbable. Germôna Sharp, in her bodacious Charlotte debut, takes on her life-of-the-party role with gusto and sass. Sharp makes sure we’re not getting a PG-17 version of Bunny: slithery, regal, carnal, and militantly unattached. She will dance with anybody — Lank, Sly, or Chelle — but not for long, totally neutral amid the sibling fray.

Costume designer Dee Abdullah helps turn on the glam, more flamboyant for Sharp and more elegant for Pelliciotta. Morisseau withholds from her characters any sententious awareness that they are standing at Ground Zero of anything historic, now or in the future, but she clearly wishes that awareness on us. A distinctive black fist is prominently painted on one of the basement walls, right above the record player and the 8-track, and its presence is meaningfully explained.

Nor should we consider evocations of Hansberry’s classic urban drama as accidental. Morisseau’s script tells us that her protagonist’s name, Lank, is short for Langston. It cannot be a coincidence that the poet Langston Hughes wrote “Harlem,” the iconic poem from which Hansberry drew the title of her masterwork, A Raisin in the Sun.

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