Detroit ’67: Centerstage offers tough, touching look at turbulent era - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Detroit ’67: Centerstage offers tough, touching look at turbulent era

Michelle Wilson (Chelle) & Amari Cheatom (Lank) in the Centerstage production of Detroit ’67. (Richard Anderson)

A year after the death of Freddie Gray and the violent uprising which followed, Baltimoreans are cognizant of how quickly poorer sections of a city can go up in flames. Sadly the roots of the unrest are nothing new, as witness Dominique Morisseau’s riveting play, Detroit ‘67 – the latest offering by Centerstage.

Flawlessly directed by Kamilah Forbes, Detroit ‘67 was the 2014 winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. Entertaining and intense, this Centerstage production is being staged in association with Detroit Public Theatre.

Detroit ‘67 tells the story of Chelle and Lank – two thirty-something siblings who make ends meet by hosting after-hours parties in the basement of their childhood home. Their parents have passed away, leaving the duo a small nest egg which Lank wants to use to open a real nightclub with his best friend, Sly. Chelle – a widow and a mother – is content with the status quo, but the dynamic in the house abruptly changes when Lank and Sly rescue a battered white woman named Caroline.

Link gets to know Caroline in Detroit '67. (credit)

Lank (Amari Cheatom) gets to know Caroline (Sarah Nealis ) in Detroit ’67. (Richard Anderson)

Chelle knows the danger her younger brother is courting by bringing a white girl into their urban abode. A stepped up police presence in the ghetto has all of Detroit on edge. Chelle’s fears are only exacerbated by rumors she hears about Caroline from her best friend Bunny. As the conflict within the home builds, the fireworks between the two siblings mirror what is happening in the streets. But nothing could prepare them for the societal firestorm that is soon to follow.

The soul music scene was flourishing in 1967, and numerous Motown hits underscore the action of Detroit ‘67. It’s fitting then to note that the stellar cast of this production is as almost as smooth as Smokey Robinson, packs the power of Martha and the Vandellas and moves in time with the easy rhythm of The Temptations.

Michelle Wilson portrays Chelle – the steadfast sister looking to make a few bucks with her club but not rock the boat. Wilson is especially effective in two scenes where we see Chelle’s tough exterior begin to crack.

Amari Cheatom initially infuses Lank with coolness and style, then allows his character to build to a blood-boiling crescendo. More restrained but no less entertaining is Brian Marable as sweet-talking Sly. Marable’s Sly tickles the funny bone in several scenes with Lank, and unexpectedly touches the heart in a beautiful sequence with Chelle.

Sly romances Chelle. (credit)

Sly (Brian Marable) romances Chelle (Michelle Wilson). (Richard Anderson)

Speaking of tickling the funny bone, Jessica Frances Dukes almost steals the show as the feisty and fetching friend Bunny. If Dukes’ beautiful and bodacious Bunny doesn’t grab you in the opening moments of the play, please check your pulse.

The unsung heroine in Detroit ‘67 may be the mysterious and troubled Caroline. She’s the one lost character with really no place to go. Sarah Nealis’ portrayal is steady, though on opening night, she seemed a bit unsure in her first encounter with Lank. Luckily, Nealis soon settled in and gave a very natural performance.

As solid as this production is on the acting side, technically it’s its own happening.

Director Kamilah Forbes does an outstanding job getting the most out of her talented players. And kudos to Casting Director Pat McCorkle for assembling such a winning cast.

Michael Carnahan’s set has the look and feel of an urban club basement, right down to glass block windows and waterproof painted masonry walls. Jen Schriever’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound are particularly effective in enhancing the sensation of the chaos engulfing the city.

The “Uptight Everything’s Alright Award” goes to Costume Designer Dede Ayite for Bunny’s outta sight threads!

If there is one knock with this production, it is the use of a modern montage of images to sledgehammer home the overriding point of the show.

Trust us – we get it.

Detroit ‘67 is the final show in Centerstage’s 2015-16 season. Clearly, the company saved the best for last. Highly recommended.

* * * * *

Centerstage’s production of Detroit ‘67 runs now – May 8. The approximate runtime is 2 hours and 28 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Please note: Because of the ongoing renovation currently happening at the theatre’s Calvert Street home, Detroit ‘67 is playing in the Mainstage Theatre at Towson University. More information may be found online by visiting Centerstage.

About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun, standout reporter at the Voice of Baltimore, and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony's poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you see his work elsewhere, please let him know. As the Good Book says, "Thou shalt not steal." Contact the author.

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