The Aurora’s ‘Detroit’ is Serious Fare without Serious Artistry
Somewhere between a virus and a ticking bomb, racial politics haunt America’s ideals and aspirations. Even on the best of days you can feel its corrosive grip on our minds and bodies, especially our black minds and bodies; and at its worse, on the explosive days, well, it’s hard to grasp the carnage without drifting into banalities.
Dominique Morriseau’s Detroit 67, receiving its West Coast premiere at the Aurora Theatre under Darryl V. Jones’ able direction, tries to catch the way our national nightmare fluctuates between the mundane and chaos. The play, uncertain in style, tone, and focus is a mess of contradictory ambitions—there are elements of the sitcom, melodrama, Brechtian epic theater, even an interesting, actually a truly interesting stab at a kind of avant-garde what-if play.
Like so many contemporary works, Morriseau begins in the sitcom. Chelle and her brother Lank are getting ready to throw a house party in their basement. With the help of her flirty friend, Bunny, and the good will of Lank’s pal, Sly—secretly in love with Chelle—the siblings are looking to make some extra cash.
Living in their deceased parent’s house, they share an inheritance and a life. Most importantly, Lank has helped Chelle raise her son, now successfully off to college at Morehouse; that they are also bound by property and finances makes them seem closer to a couple than siblings. Caught in a kind of vexed Eden—somewhat financially stable, rooted in neighborhood life, living out a kind of unintentional white marriage—they are blissfully unaware of the race riot about to burst into and change their lives.
It’s a lot of set up and everything that we learn we could have learned later by inference. Why most first scenes and acts in the American theater have suddenly taken on the qualities of grade school book reports is a question best left for another time. What we’ll say here is that for one brief moment Morriseau shakes the dust off the rickety skeleton of the typical American play and lets loose with a much more dangerous and engaged vision.
After that sketchbook beginning, the real play begins (or one of them). In the dim basement light Lank and Sly scurry down the stairs carrying a young, unconscious white woman. It’s an arresting image and we know that no good can come of this. When Chelle catches on to what they’ve brought into her house and why—they found her “stumbling on the side of the road and lookin’ real bad”—she explodes: “What make you pick her up and bring her here?!”
Here is a situation that William Faulkner or Suzan Lori-Parks might have concocted and when the play swirls around the nightmare of what this invasion of mangled whiteness called Caroline has to offer, Detroit 67 achieves a strange buoyant charm and interest.
You can feel the disaster coming, the characters can feel the disaster coming, and yet it’s all too tantalizing a “what if” to not give it a whirl: Why not help the white girl! Let her stay for a while! In the basement! And see how she does as a barmaid! Of course they make more money with her dishing out the liquor! And, of course, as all fables go that bit of good luck should make them warier, more alert to what’s happening around them, and, well, of course, unfortunately, it doesn’t.
As a playwright Morriseau has happy feet, constantly shifting back and forth between contrary dramatic styles and ideas. The first act hovers uneasily between conceptual daring, sitcom antics dressed up as everyday life, and dabs of Brechtian commentary between the scenes. The second act is organized like an August Wilson play, a series of vignettes that delay the drama to deepen our sense of the world from which it eventually emerges. No one should ever say that some balance between these four couldn’t work; it’s that Morriseau hasn’t the skill, talent, or daring to pull it off. The writing is almost the absolute definition of dutiful, as if a play were a set of promises rather than an examination of how people live.
The romance of Chelle and Sly catches a lot of what’s wrong. From Sly’s opening gambit to Chelle—“Hey, hey there sweet Chelle”—we know what’s going to follow. Their love and romance are necessary for the play to work dramatically as well as formally; yet, the romance feels forced and its eventual resolution anything but natural.
The speed and sketchiness of the writing undercuts the play’s aesthetic, political, and social concerns. True engagement rarely comes from bland writing. In recent years the melodramatic has gained force as a political aesthetic and that’s what Morriseau is after here: big emotions that capture the violent injustice of Black life in America. The importance of articulating and expressing these ongoing social tragedies is of the greatest necessity, but it requires more imagination and vision than the playwright musters here.
The aesthetic failure of plays like Detroit 67 strikes a double blow. One, it reduces and harnesses the real world to mere sensation, empty emotions, and false gestures of importance; and two, in doing so it blinds us from worlds and thinking that we need to confront and understand. Sometimes there is nothing worse than good intentions gone wrong.
I’d like someone to defend this play. If you feel like it, please write in (unknown person) and challenge this review.
‘Detroit’ runs through October 7 at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.