To borrow a description from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” 1967 was the best of times and the worst of times in Detroit. Motown music was at its peak. But that was also the year Detroit experienced one of the worst race riots in American history.
“Detroit ’67,” an award-winning play by Dominique Morisseau, explores the tension of that summer against a backdrop of iconic tunes.
“It’s a drama with funny parts and fine Motown music,” says Edye Evans Hyde, executive producer of Ebony Road Players which will present seven performances of “Detroit ‘67” over the next two weekends. “It’s a straight play, not a musical. But the music is a catalyst for the story.”
The play is set in a Detroit basement where Chelle and her brother Lank are trying to make ends meet by opening an after-hours joint. Although the rioting happens off stage, the problems envelop the family.
Hyde was only a 10-year-old kid in 1967, but she remembers the tension in her own family when rioting broke out in Grand Rapids a couple days after Detroit.
“My father usually parked on the street but he put the car in the garage because he was concerned about what was going to happen,” she said.
Co-sponsored by the arts organization SITE:LAB, the show will be presented at the shuttered Paul I. Phillips building, formerly Grand Rapids Christian High School, 415 Franklin Street. SITE:LAB, which creates site-specific art projects, is activating the vacant but architecturally intriguing facility.
The building is in an area that was involved in rioting in 1967, Hyde said. Mementos of that time will be provided by the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. Presenting sponsor of the event is Lambert, Edwards and Associates, along with Herman Miller, Davenport University and other charitable donors.
The playwright grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan. In 2014, “Detroit ‘67” won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. It is the first of a three-play cycle by Morisseau called “The Detroit Projects.” Morisseau’s work is so popular that she was on the list of the Top 20 Most Produced Playwrights of 2015-16.
Hyde said “Detroit ‘67” is the most significant production for Ebony Road Players since the company was organized in 2013.
“It’s a step for us to do this big of a work by such a major playwright,” Hyde said. “We have combined forces with other organizations. We are moving toward our vision of providing a platform for under -represented voices. ”
This will be the company’s second time to mark a 50th anniversary this year. For the past three years the company has scheduled events around Loving Day which celebrates the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws against interracial marriage. That decision was handed down June 12, 1967, and the Detroit riots were July 23-28.
Ebony Road Players also offers an education program to encourage youngsters to write plays.
Dedicated to presenting plays about the black experience, the company wants to develop black writers, actors and directors. “Detroit ‘67” will be the directorial debut of Amisha Groce who has performed in several productions for Ebony Road Players. The cast includes Syreeta Drake, Tova Jones, Linnea Caurdy, David Nortè and Julian Newman.
The company also strives to spark community dialogue about race and culture.
“This play is about a part of history,” Hyde said. “We want to help people to understand what happened and talk about where we are today. People who don’t know about history are very much destined to repeat it.”
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6-7 and Oct. 12-14; 3 p.m. Oct. 8 and 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Tickets are $20 – $40 and are available online.
*Photo courtesy of Ebony Road Players