In the wake of Ferguson and the cases of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, a national conversation about race relations has come to the foreground. Continuing the conversation of racism in America, the University's theater department is performing Dominique Morisseau’s "Detroit ‘67."
In this story about four black people trying to keep their lives together during the race riots of 1967 in Detroit, brother and sister Lank and Chelle, played by Brianna Woods and Zechariah Williams, butt heads while trying to figure out how best to spend their parents’ inheritance. Joining them are characters Bunny and Sly, played by Ayzia Underwood and Izzy Lee, who help to foil the main characters and add a little drama to the story by playing Lank and Chelle's love interests.
By itself, the story would be interesting enough, but with the added conflict of the riots and an unknown white girl named Caroline showing up, the play shines a light on tensions between races and the way law enforcement sees the black community as a whole.
“My goal here is to discuss issues involving race and gender,” said Zachary Sudbury, the director of "Detroit ‘67." “These are issues that I find really important, and I want to try to highlight the conversations that we should be having.”
Through being exposed to performances similar to "Detroit ‘67," Sudbury said his eyes were opened to issues that he knew existed, but, because of his background, had never experienced firsthand.
“I knew that this was something that I needed to address,” Sudbury said. “Especially with what has been going on in society recently; these are important issues.”
Ayesha Hardison, a Detroit native and audience member, said she appreciated the use of music in each scene.
“I was interested in seeing how we remembered the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit,” Hardison said. “I was really impressed by the use of history in the posters and the music used. Music is really an important part of the Detroit culture, and it was used well here to move the story along.”
Each change of scene, rather than simply fading to black, begins and ends with a Motown piece from the time. Most tracks had a significant role in the theme or action of the scene, with the characters singing along or talking about the artist. The play opens with Chelle having an argument with her record player for refusing to play one of her favorite songs.
Darren Canady, a member of the audience and friend of the playwright, said he was pleased with the production of the play and said that Morisseau herself would be happy with how it turned out.
“I think Dominique would be particularly happy with how her work is being played at a college,” Canady said. “She’s really interested in educating young people and young artists, and her work since Ferguson has been a real response to what’s been going on in society.”
Canady drew parallels between race relations now and what was going on during the Civil Rights Movement.
“There’s an unfortunate continuity in this conversation of racism and what communities of color go through,” Canady said. “This is not something that we’ve just started talking about; this is something that we’ve been dealing with as a nation for generations.”
Despite the strong social message, or perhaps because of it, "Detroit ‘67," as performed at KU, has a magnetic charm that draws audiences into the characters and their struggles as each of them tries to live out their dreams despite obstacles.
Sudbury said his favorite part of the play was seeing Bunny explain to Chelle that we are who we are, and at the end of the day there’s nothing that can change that.
“It’s a powerful scene that’s both uplifting and tragic as you watch Chelle have to be told that it’s OK for her to be who she is,” Sudbury said. “It’s tragic to watch because that’s something that we all take for granted. And we should all know that about ourselves, but here is this woman who’s been beaten down by society and [has experienced] everything that she’s gone through, who has to hear from her friend that she’s alright how she is.
"That’s not something that a person should have to hear. It’s something they should already know.”
This seemed to resonate with audience members who agreed that people of color are often misrepresented.
“There’s a scene where Chelle tells her brother to tell people that he and his friend are businessmen — that they weren’t looters,” Hardison said. “I think that’s really important because too often are we shown as something we aren’t, and I really appreciated that added in there.”
"Detroit ‘67" does a good job connecting with its audience, despite the difference in period, and showing what the Detroit riots of 1967 looked like from the perspective of a hardworking family.
“It’s important for students to see this and be a part of the conversation,” Sudbury said. “Not just people who are already a part of the conversation, but people who need to be a part of the conversation.”
"Detroit '67" has three more performances on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Student tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. For more information, visit kutheatre.com.