Signature Theatre has done quite nicely adapting to our not-entirely-voluntary age of virtual theater. Earlier this season, Matthew Gardiner’s digital productions of Simply Sondheim and Midnight at the Never Get, shot in collaboration with multimedia outfit Chiet Productions, both exuded Signature’s live theater pizzazz, while beautifully fulfilling the audio-visual demands of smooth on-screen presentation. But the company’s latest and final show in their digital Signature Features season, Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 (★★☆☆☆), just misses that model combo of enthralling live theater rendered with televisual appeal.
Director Candis C. Jones and the five-person cast, all making their Signature mainstage debuts, certainly carve out enthralling moments in Morisseau’s prize-winning play. Jones, scenic designer Milagros Ponce de León, and lighting designer John D. Alexander create an inviting space for us to relax in the basement bar and lounge of the Poindexter home, and take in the 1967-set drama that unfolds between siblings Chelle (Stori Ayers) and Lank (JaBen Early).
Having just inherited their late mom and dad’s house on Detroit’s West Side, they’re preparing to turn the wood-paneled basement into an after-hours joint to rival nearby Duke’s. The idea, as far as Chelle understands, is simply to make some extra dough to pay off the house, and help put her boy Julius through Tuskegee. She enlists the help of her fast, funny friend Bunny (Valeka Jessica) to promote, and Lank calls on his hustler homeboy Sly (Greg Alverez Reid). Of course, there will be complications. A record player that keeps skipping through her Motown 45s is Chelle’s first clue that all won’t go according to plan. The unconscious, beaten, and bruised white woman Lank and Sly bring home wrapped in a blanket is maybe not her second clue, but a bright, flapping red flag nonetheless.
The mystery woman’s name is Caroline (Emily Kester), and while we can agree with Chelle that Lank goes all stupid around her, her presence is ultimately just a blunt device to pit brother against sister. Already at odds over their aspirations as entrepreneurs, Chelle and Lank become further divided by his attraction to Caroline, about whom he knows next to nothing. But before Chelle and Lank, their sibling love well-etched by Ayers and Early, can solve their domestic discord, the real world intrudes as a police raid on a local bar explodes into an uprising.
Written years before the uprisings of 2020, the play is still in tempo with what concerns the world right now, even if the dialogue sounds somewhat dated given constant recent exposure to the discussion of real police violence against people of color. Bunny and Sly both share stories of being harassed by cops in their hood. And even Caroline, a character Kester struggles to manifest as more than a device, delivers a lesson on the brutality that the Black characters feel encroaching on their right to be and live. Several lessons are spelled out, but only Chelle and Lank learning to understand each other better really bears much fruit.
Ayers registers impact in Chelle’s quiet moments of insight, like a scene, late in the play, where she laments the way Lank sees so much potential for his future in Caroline, an outsider, but never did in Bunny or any of the women they know. The play’s bigger dramatic beats, by contrast, don’t hit as deep. The rhythm in those tense emotional swings feels labored, as does the video production throughout, marked by camerawork and editing so active that the movement around the stage and actors proves to be utterly distracting. The sizzle in the drama gets doused by buzzy cinematography that would be better off most of the time just calmly relaxing in the Poindexters’ basement.
Detroit ’67 is available on Marquee TV for streaming on-demand through September 16. Tickets for a 72-hour viewing window are $35. Visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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