For a comedy-drama about an African-American brother and sister trying to run an after-hours joint out of their basement, Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, at the Public Theater, requires a surprising amount of stage blood. Every scene takes place in the cinder-block cellar of the house Chelle and Lank Poindexter share. But as Morisseau sets her script on the eve of riots that sent tanks rolling through the inner city and left 43 dead, the outside world has a nasty, violent way of slipping down that rickety wooden staircase. Morisseau shows a family—and a city—on the brink of perilous change.
Having recently inherited a house and a small estate, Chelle (Michelle Wilson) wants to keep her son in college and host parties to pay off the mortgage. Her baby brother, Lank (Francois Battiste), has other, riskier dreams—to buy and run a local bar. And Lank complicates the domestic scenario further when he rescues a beaten white woman, Caroline (Samantha Soule), and installs her on the sofa.
Morisseau is a member of the Public’s Emerging Writers Group and this piece, co-produced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, reveals some real strengths, along with some novice missteps. She has a sure command of character (helped by strong casting) and some fine dialogue, though she and director Kwame Kwei-Armah sometimes vacillate uneasily between the naturalistic and the sitcomic. But the structure is anemic and the intrusion of the civic into the domestic contrived.
Still, these fine actors (the cast also includes De’Adre Aziza and the helplessly likable Brandon J. Dirden) can compensate for weaknesses in plot, as can the glorious soundtrack, much of it ostensibly played via 8-track (very high-tech for 1967). When Caroline jams in a cassette of “How Sweet It Is . . . ” or Chelle dances alone to “Reach Out,” you know that whatever the Motor City may suffer, Motown will endure.