The Strand Theatre is quickly establishing itself as one of the most relevant theatre companies in Baltimore with their provocative 11th Season. On the heels of their extraordinary production of Night Mother, comes Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau. Taking place in brother and sister Chelle and Lank’s basement, that also doubles as an underground bar and dance club, the play concerns what happens when Lank brings home an unconscious white woman just before the Detroit riots of 1967 begin.
Although this show has boundless potential, the tension never quite reaches anything above a solid simmer. Director Erin Riley aptly cast the five-person drama with actors of considerable talent and presence; however, Riley did not quite manage to get this cast to reach their full potential.
Playing Chelle, the manager of the bar and clear rule maker of the house, Shamire Casselle brings a naturalism that is beautiful, and yet at times Casselle seems to stand outside of the action of the play, almost as if the stakes of the story have not been fully realized. Troy Jennings as Lank, the brother with reckless ambition, delivers much of his character with an infectious passion, but his apparent self consciousness when it comes to his physicality serves to distance us from his plight. And Betse Lyons, who had stunning moments of emotional clarity throughout, still lacked a certain fullness in her character. For all these characters it felt as though we only got to see one side of them.
Across the board this show has moments of brilliance, but it seemed the cast didn’t get that final push they needed to fully form their performances, and this play fully rests on the shoulders of its cast. This issue isn’t helped by the script either. Morisseau always circles around action without ever actually landing. What that creates is a play that is immensely relevant and yet not nearly potent enough.
All of this to say that while this is certainly not the master class production The Strand is capable of, it is without a doubt a conversation starting, thoughtful piece of theatre. The topic this play deals with of what it means to be black in America and how people of color constantly have to negotiate their ambition in order survive is palpable and real. The specificity and care with which this topic is treated is rare to see on a Baltimore stage and the cast and crew should be proud of it.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Every play cannot be perfect, but every play should start a conversation. While Detroit ’67 has its flaws, it still accomplishes to add beautiful commentary to difficult conversations. I highly recommend going and supporting this production. (B)
Running time two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission. Running through November 18th at the Strand.