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‘Detroit ’67’ is a smart, heart-wrenching and engrossing drama

There’s something instantly irresistible about a play that opens with an argument between a woman and her record player.

That is the deceptively lighthearted introduction the gifted playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote for “Detroit ’67,” her smart, heart-wrenching and often humorous look at life on the west side of Detroit during the city’s infamous 1967 riots.

This imperfect but engrossing play, which opened May 7 in the Paul Robeson Theatre, is the first in Morisseau’s “Detroit Trilogy,” which considers the decline of that great city through the lens of its black citizens and their attempts to wring success from an increasingly hostile environment.

In “Detroit ’67,” directed by Aaron Moss, it’s police violence against black men that comes in for Morisseau’s trademark treatment, which is sensitive and unsparing at once. It unmasks the persistent cancers of systemic discrimination and police violence against black bodies by putting one family unit under the microscope.

Morisseau’s story, like the story of black America, is one of constant striving in the face of constantly frustrated ambition. It focuses on a brother and sister named Lank and Chelle (Gary-Kayi Fletcher and Candance Whitfield) struggling to make ends meet after their parents’ death by hosting off-the-books, after-hours parties in their ad-hoc basement lounge.

The relationship between the older Chelle and her younger brother is one of fierce loyalty and protection. Chelle, who has that older-sister way of bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders, sees herself as keeping their tenuous life and livelihood from ripping apart at the seams. Lank, on the other hand, has big dreams that go far beyond late-night basement parties. Those dreams involve going into business with his best friend Sly (Shabar Rouse, consistently hilarious and charming) in a legitimate business, against the wishes of his uptight sister.

But as for so many black dreamers in Detroit and across the United States, the chronic disease of American racism has other plans for them. Those plans, on the streets of Detroit in the late-’60s and so many cities before and after, involve the wholesale and systematic persecution of African-American families. And that persecution, Morisseau eloquently argues, is never more pronounced than when those families dare to dream themselves out of the ghetto.

“They beat on us to keep us aimin’ low,” says Lank, stumbling into the basement after the cops beat him up for tending to his own business. “Soon as we aim high, they know Detroit gonna be a [black] city and not theirs. I’m gonna show them what’s what when I got my own spot.”

Added into the siblings’ story is a wild card, a troubled white woman named Caroline (Heather Reed), who Lank and Sly picked up one night after she’d been beat up by a boyfriend. Her mysterious appearance strains credulity. While Morisseau’s attempt to use her to illustrate the infinite complexity of cross-racial friendships and relationships is noble, it ultimately feels strained.

The peripheral character Bunny (played with expert comic timing by Annette L. Christian) brings much of the play’s comic relief, but otherwise seems extraneous to the plot at hand.

Parts of Morisseau’s overlong script tend to spell out the issues at hand a bit too specifically and or to tell where it ought to show. Even so, its intelligence and sensitivity to the complexity of the issues at play in Detroit – and across the country – shines through at nearly every moment. It’s also evidence of the playwright’s keen understanding of family dynamics, which Fletcher and Whitfield bring out in excellent performances that drill to the heart of the sibling relationship with consummate humor and grace.

All of this unfolds on Harlan Penn’s utterly believable set and under Malik Griffin’s sensitive if occasionally too assertive lighting design, both of which bring new dimensions of credibility to Morisseau’s strong, if strained, debut.