The UCI Drama department’s production of “Detroit ’67” took audiences back in time to the days of soulful Motown music from Feb. 4-7. Directed by Margaret Laurena Kemp, the show follows a family who owns an underground bar, which also acts as a dance hall, on the West Side of Detroit that has been stretched to its breaking point by community police brutality. Presented via Zoom, this show was a collaborative effort conducted by both MFA and BFA students.
Some of the most memorable moments reminded viewers that the events in 1967 are still present and occurring today. The exhibition expands its scope and highlights many topics under the umbrella of police brutality, a welcomed addition to the conversation about improving people who are entrusted to serve and protect.
Chelle (Jocelynn Johnston) is the central figure of the piece, and her grounded yet poignant performance showcases a range that is burgeoning beyond her years. Chelle has a son in college and needs to keep her feet on the ground. To make ends meet, she teams up with her brother Lank (Avery Evans) to convert their basement into a speakeasy.
Lank has a kindness to him that is felt through the screen, a talent that is rarely felt, let alone appreciated. Lank is, after all, a dreamer and wishes to own a bar someday. One day, he and his buddy Sly (Mori Gbujama) find a white woman named Caroline (Vivianna McCormick), beaten up by a police officer, on their way home.
Bunny (Arielle Kenny) is good friends with Chelle and is cordial about her love for Lank. However, it seems he has eyes for someone else. Bunny’s presence at times provided a modest yet comedic effect that had a touch of grace and civility in an otherwise tumultuous time. Later, Bunny confronts Chelle about what they will do with the inheritance money she and Lank received since their father passed away.
Sly’s energy and delivery sparked an everyday relatability that had me rooting for his objective throughout the show. In a rare time when connection with others is so hard to find, Sly’s character stays with you even after the show’s final title card is displayed.
Caroline’s performance rounded out the solid cast of players in a balanced yet stirring manner. If there were a spoon to stir the pot, this would be that character. McCormick authentically performed her role through a sense of realism by staying in the moment, and her ability to go from beat to beat within a scene was clear and convincing.
Kemp expressed her happiness with the job her troop did, and rightfully so. Each cast member accurately depicted the period in 1967 and the consequent series of events since. The interpretation of the production is a call to action to remind others that the struggle is not over; the fight will continue, and that the people shall overcome. In what capacity and context do these elements apply? Well, you’ll just have to watch the show to find out.
Performance-wise, an element that stood out was the actors holding the books that had their scripts inside them — a technique seen in reader’s theatre, dramatic interpretation, poetry and prose. Considering the time limitation this production had and the shift to a virtual environment, the books added an unexpected element of telling the story from a historical context. It yielded a feeling that this story is part of our country’s history; getting it correct, by any means necessary, was never more critical.
The production design was the opposite of a black box theatre with everyone using white backdrops as their background. The actors had on all-black wardrobes, signifying a higher message than the riots, injustice and murder. The black wardrobe symbolized people affected by discrimination inside the U.S., and this interpretation opened the door to understanding the underlying message of how we treat one another and how that affects others. Whether that’s why the wardrobe was what it was, or to keep in harmony with the black and white photos in order to reflect the historical context, the message was received.
There were a few photos sprinkled throughout the digital presentation that provided insight to the characters’ childhood. The images created not only a sense of place but also belonging, depicting where someone is from and where they wish to return with their children someday. These pictures display a place of happiness and togetherness among the characters’ friends and families. Thinking about it now, the image used in “Sorry to Bother You,” which represented Cash’s example of what hard work could bring, provided a story not explicatively stated. The lingering question is whether or not this was the directors’ intent; it leaves the audience thinking about her production. If it was, then she was successful in her attempt.
This theatre production is part of a new year of firsts. Last year, we saw the world join together against discrimination. This year, Kamala Harris was the first female, first Black and first Asian to be sworn in as Vice President. Lamar Jackson, LeBron James and Russell Wilson are the faces of their prospective leagues. As a country, we have come a long way since the years surrounding 1967, but what “Detroit ’67” reminds us is that there’s still a ways to go.
Angel Castellanos is a Staff Photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.