Karmu House’s “Detroit ‘67” explores life behind riots
On the opening night of “Detroit ‘67” at Karamu House, the theater was packed. So many people showed up that more chairs were brought in for the back of the theater, and those were filled too. During the short pre-show announcements, it became known that a good portion of the audience had come from Oberlin College.
Justin Emeka, the director of “Detroit ‘67,” is a professor at Oberlin in addition to his work at Karamu, and his students are supportive of both professions. “It is really special to bring them into Karamu House because it was Oberlin graduates that helped start Karamu over 100 years ago,” said Emeka in an email interview.
The performance of “Detroit ‘67” had the audience involved in unplanned ways; between scenes, the crowd sang along to hits like “Dancing In The Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye.
The music played a crucial role in “Detroit ‘67”–sometimes the motown was there for celebration, and sometimes for grief. It provided entertainment during set changes, but stayed consistent with the play’s plot.
The first half of “Detroit ‘67” hinges on the drama that occurs when Lank (Ananias J. Dixon) brings home a badly-beaten white woman, Caroline (Joelle Sostheim). Lank found her in a bad area of Detroit. Lank’s sister Chelle (Phillia) disapproves immediately, but after Lank explains Caroline’s desperate situation and his action to save her life, Chelle allows the woman to stay in their house as long as she helps out with cleaning.
This includes preparing for a large party, which the siblings use to make money in the form of tips. The entire first half of the play built up to the party; the hype was real. But when the party scene arrived and friends Bunny (Jameka Terri) and Sly (Brandon Brown) showed up, I was left wondering where the party actually was.
The full cast of five actors stood on the stage and danced around as music played, but the party vibe wasn’t there. This moment showed a struggle of having such a small cast; when you’re throwing a party that was supposed to be packed with people, it’s impossible to create that effect onstage without having a few extras thrown in.
When the next scene arrived and Chelle was counting money from the tip jar, I had to backtrack and realize that the small dancing scene was the party.
Still, besides this off-putting moment in the first half, the plot flowed smoothly into the second half, gradually growing darker and darker. The Detroit 1967 race riots clashed into the otherwise playful plot, and ended in despair.
Emeka’s decision to include video from the riots was effective; instead of just talking about what was happening outside the home, the audience could see it projected onto a screen in the top corner of the back wall during pauses in the play below. However, the portrayal of the riots in this production was less important to Emeka than the portrayal of the riots’ effect on everyday citizens of Detroit.
“The challenge is creating characters and relationships that are more interesting than the riots so the audience will invest more in what’s going on inside the house than wanting to see what’s going on outside,” said Emeka.
Ultimately, it was those characters which kept the play interesting, and especially the supporting actors. Jameka Terri took Bunny’s character and made her as hilarious as possible, with her over-the-top dancing scenes and sex stories. Brandon Brown was huggable and funny as Sly. He gradually grew on Chelle until their romance became evident, and grew on the audience too; when he emerged for the party scene decked out in a vibrant blue suit and red fedora, the crowd whooped in support of the unique costuming.
Karamu’s production of “Detroit ‘67” intertwined happy party moments with mourning. It humored and healed with music. By the end of the play, it was clear what kind of an effect a citywide riot can have on the people you meet every day.
This play is important, not only in terms of historic fictional accounts, but also in understanding the personal destruction that happens, hidden, behind the burning streets of a riot.
Karamu House will be showing “Detroit ‘67” through Feb. 28. Tickets can be bought at Karamu House’s website.