‘Detroit ’67’ timely look at the racial divide
By Catey Sullivan For Sun-Times Media November 6, 2013 7:30PM
Kamal Angelo Bolden (from left), Tyla Abercrumbie, Kelvin Roston Jr. (background) and director Ron OJ Parson rehearse a scene from “Detroit ‘67.”
‘Detroit ’67,’ Nov. 8-Dec. 15, Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. $15-$75. (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
Updated: November 9, 2013 9:32AM
You can’t actually see either of the two galvanizing forces that indelibly alter the lives of the tight-knit brother/sister team at the heart of “Detroit ’67,” at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre. But the infectious sounds of Motown and the terrifying sounds of riots all but serve as additional characters in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s emotionally charged exploration of ferocious civil unrest and equally intense family ties.
In the hands of veteran, much-lauded Chicago director Ron OJ Parson, “Detroit ’67” is both deeply rooted in the titular time and place, and as urgently relevant as the latest headlines.
“A lot of people want to say we’re living in a post-racial society because we’ve got a black president, but in some places of the country? It’s worse than ever,” says Parson.
You don’t have to dig very deep to find the truth behind his assertion. The week “Detroit ’67” went into rehearsal, a black engineering undergrad was arrested in Manhattan, accused of larceny after he purchased a $350 belt at an upscale department store. The reasoning reportedly behind the arrest? That Trayon Christian couldn’t possibly have enough money for such a pricey item, and must have stolen the charge card he used.
“This was a kid,” says Kamal Angelo Bolden, who plays Langston, an aspiring entrepreneur who runs an after-hours club with his sister Chelle in “Detroit ’67.” “He was a kid, making a stupid expensive purchase like kids do. What happened to him shows us that the profiling that went on in 1967 goes on today. The ideology has been sustained in a lot of places.”
The Christian case is mild compared to the racial profiling that figures heavily in the plot of “Detroit ’67.” Chelle and Langston, along with their friend Sylvester (Kelvin Roston Jr.), are literally afraid to leave the confines of their home because their skin color makes them prime targets for arrest, beating and detainment.
Morisseau didn’t need to indulge in creative license to explore the reason for her characters’ fears; a recent examination by Rutgers University scholars of the Detroit riots paints a frightening picture of the city, especially in the mostly black 12th Street/Clairmont Avenue neighborhood where the play is set.
The riots — which the Rutgers study notes were rooted in a complicated foundation of social, political and economic issues — exploded after the police raided a club hosting a welcome home party for a pair of Vietname vets.
“The city was a powder keg,” adds Bolden. “When that spark finally came, the cops beating people senselessly at that club, well, that was the match.”
For Langston, Chelle and Sylvester, the danger outside literally enters their apartment when the two men find a young white woman, dazed, bleeding and incoherent, wandering the streets. Simply by doing the decent human thing— taking her in and tending to her wounds — they put themselves in grave danger.
Still, the enigmatic Caroline is a catalyst for hope, says Bolden, so that “Detroit ’67” is ultimately a joyful, hopeful play.
“There’s positivity that eventually shines through,” says Parson, “We’re still fighting a protracted struggle. But we’re making progress.”