Motown as Muse: An Essay

The Family You Choose: Motown as Muse

“Promise me we’re gonna hold this house and this family together, Lank.”

Chelle to her brother Langston in Dominique Morisseau’s  Detroit ’67 (Samuel French ed., 22)


Dominique Morisseau, Obie-winning playwright and MacArthur Genius Fellow, can flat out call down some muses.  Calliope, muse of epic poetry, surely guides Morisseau’s unerring ear for the way folks really talk; Clio, muse of history, plops her (and us) directly down into 1967, in the middle of a dangerous and much endangered Detroit ghetto. With passionate expertise, Morisseau conjures up Euterpe, muse of Motor City music, and she sadly summons Melpomene, the ever-present muse of tragedy—forever hungry for young black men. We see her conjure Terpsichore, muse of the slow dance, making everyone sway to the beats of the ‘Temps,’ Marvin Gaye, and other Motown greats.

But, setting  Zeus’ artsy daughters aside for a moment, an implacable city itself  can serve as quite a muse, too.

Consider Damon Runyon’s New York City, with its ad hoc street families of soft-hearted thugs, crazy crap-shooters and earnest soul-savers. Consider August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. Wilson used Pittsburgh’s very lifeblood for ink, dipping in for ten plays to depict each decade of the 20th century. Wilson is also one of Morisseau’s chosen literary fathers, (with Lorraine Hansberry, a chosen mother) in additional ways to be discussed.

Detroit is especially muse to Morisseau in the trilogy of plays about her birthplace entitled The Detroit Project of which our play is a part. Paradise Blue depicts the city in 1949; Detroit ’67 conveys us to 1967— the violent year before Dr. King’s assassination and a year in which other black lives didn’t seem to matter much either. The third play in the trilogy is Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, ground zero for the Great Recession, which crashed down harder upon Detroit than nearly any other US city. 

In a one-set play with five characters, acting will, of course, be king, but in this play, set and sound design must share pride of place. The uni-set described in the Morisseau’s careful stage directions is an unfinished basement—that’s clear enough—but, Morisseau cagily informs us, “efforts have been made to make it look inviting” (7).  Dressing and prop descriptions then follow including “Proud posters of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali” along with “a photo of Malcolm X. Big tack through Malcolm’s forehead.” There are “height markings,” a “name in cursive” and a “huge four-pointed star” (7).

While a set designer must actualize these visuals, a careful reader of the play is free to  ponder and shift possibilities—decorating and redecorating his imagined setting at will. The former heroes from black culture would seem to indicate the denizens of this room are still flush with the Civil Rights-era message of black pride. Joe Louis and Ali, of course, represent black athletes victorious over longtime oppression in the sports industry. Malcolm, notably, gets wall time over his rival Martin Luther King, Jr.  But Malcolm, by this date, has already been sacrificed, with King’s death and eventual apotheosis still one year in the future. The odd detail of a tack through Malcolm’s forehead might signify someone’s disillusionment or disappointment with either his teachings or abrupt departure—sadly at the hands of fellow black assassins. 

The “height markings” and “a name in cursive” suggest at least one attentive, perhaps a bit indulgent, proud parent—proud of the family’s culture and its growing children. Some additional set descriptions— “A huge black fist. A very bad and lumpy portrait of a brown girl”—re-enforce that same unspoken message. This family uses this space the way some other families use refrigerator doors, as a children’s art gallery. The room-wide dispersal of children’s art here indicates either extreme commitment to the children, or, conceivably, a lack of funds to buy professionally produced artwork.  Both are probably true. Here, the whole room—not merely one kitchen appliance—shouts out cultural and familial pride. When we later learn that the now-deceased father of the family actually encouraged his children to draw on the basement walls, saying “Mark your territory” (51), one is reinforced in the positive interpretation. During the course of the play, the male characters bring in a velvet painting of two nude black women, causing consternation in the women (and probably condescension among more educated art lovers). The naughty velvet painting hints at something else, as well. We soon learn that this basement now has a dual function. It is still living space for the brother and sister who inhabit the house, having inherited it from their now-deceased doting parents, but it also serves as an illegal after-hours party spot, in the long money-making tradition of urban juke joints, fish fries, and rent parties. 

The sound designer is equally challenged from Act I, scene 1 of the text. He or she must create a sound environment in which Motown Music is almost a sixth character. Other ambient sounds to be conveyed will include the super-subtle distinction between vinyl records—scratchy records, at that—and eight-track tapes, the latest hi fi innovation of the period. But we must also hear, and preferably feel, the non-too-subtle rumble of tanks outside the basement, a sound effect that must represent all of black Detroit being wracked by fires, riots, looting, military invention and deadly police crack-downs, often on innocent black by-standers.  

The four main characters of the play—Chelle, Bunny, Lank and Sly—share a common black heritage and culture, plus relationships of love or affection dating from before the action of the play. (Readers, again, must infer these warm feelings.) We open on Chelle (short for Michelle), who is grooving on a Temptations record and interacting both with the artists, especially David Ruffin, and with her troublesome music-delivery system: in this case, a record-player and a scratchy record. The ‘scratched record’ becomes a conceit for each group’s inevitable flaws (cf. p. 85: “Throw us out like a scratched record. But ain’t we got no value?”).  A second continuing metaphor resides in Morisseau’s frequent use of the word “mess” by every character and in every conceivable context. The siblings Chelle and Lank (short for Langston Hughes Poindexter) and their close friends Bunny and Sly (short for Bonita and Sylvester) form a makeshift family in a shifting, rather tangled mess of rectangular relationships. Detroit itself is in a dangerous mess — plagued by police corruption and the desperate poverty of many black citizens. And when the ‘fifth wheel’ character Caroline, a badly beaten (by a cop) white girl, enters the basement sanctuary—everything devolves into a hot “mess.”

Bunny is Chelle’s best friend, a flashier, often funnier version of Chelle. Bunny is a tastemaker before the age of social media. People pay her to recommend the hottest spots in town. When Chelle’s after-hours basement party shuts down for a while, Bunny sends her ‘advisees’ to another place, excusing her actions to Chelle by saying,  “I love you like potato salad, but folks pay me to send ‘em to the happenin’ places” (9). How can anyone stay mad at a woman who talks like that? 

Sly, an honest numbers-runner, is Lank’s best friend. Sly is attracted to both women; Lank is likewise attracted to Bunny, until Caroline comes along, activating the old taboo against interracial love. Chelle is none too pleased about her brother’s attraction to Caroline, though she does accept the extra cash Caroline brings into their after-hours parties where they let her work as a waitress.  (Lank is not the only black man infatuated with white women.) Morisseau plays easily with the once deadly and still thorny taboo. Depicting the year 1967, she can dismiss white women as an “aphrodisiac” (39) for curious black boys rather than the cause for their lynchings, as in the past.

The interracial romance between Lank and Caroline is one pivot point to Morisseau’s plot, but the strain between unlike-minded siblings, sister Chelle and brother Lank, when it comes to what a family should value the most, is perhaps the real crux of the story. It also serves as an homage on Morisseau’s part (conscious or not) to two very famous plays by her aforementioned ‘father’ Wilson and ‘mother’ Hansberry. The thematic tie that binds the three playwrights is their shared focus on the black family’s sense of legacy and how men and women choose to guard it, often quite differently.

Chelle and Lank have inherited money from their parents, and they strongly disagree on how to spend it. Following in what readers might recognize as the steps of Hansberry’s Walter Lee Younger (in Raisin in the Sun, 1959), Lank longs to own a business. Walter Lee wanted a liquor store; Lank wants a bar. Lank and his business partner Sly defy Chelle’s wishes and purchase the bar, spending the entire legacy. Comparable to Beneatha (Walter Lee’s younger sister) and Moma Lena in Raisin, Chelle wants to strengthen the family’s essential domestic safety and identity. Moma Lena buys a house in Raisin; Chelle wants to pay her nephew’s tuition at a black college. For Chelle, education must eventually lead to her family’s success-- a harder but surer path than investing in a rigged economic system. 

The battle waged between August Wilson’s Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson, 1987), determined to sell the family piano to invest in farmland, and his sister Berneice, just as determined to keep the specially carved piano within their family, representing, as it does for her, heritage itself, likewise stands in the direct ancestral DNA ‘plot line’ of Morisseau’s play. With ancestors like Hansberry and Wilson, Morisseau has chosen for herself an impressive theatrical family tree. 

Chelle speaks to Caroline of her brother’s false dreams of success in a previously white-owned bar with Caroline, his white girlfriend, by his side: “Lank got his eye on the sky but Detroit ain’t in the sky. It’s right here on the ground. A ground with a lot of dividing lines. We on one side and you on the other” (83). Chelle’s similar statement on white privilege is cogent and still relevant today. Again, Chelle is speaking to Caroline who thinks her love of black culture and of Lank makes all of them the same: 

You [Caroline] can disappear and reappear wherever else you want, in any zone you choose. Live a new life without permission or boundaries or some kinda limits to your skin. Can Lank do that? Can any of us...But ‘til he have the same title to this world that you got, you and him ain’t gon’ never be the same! (84).

Still, Chelle’s anger against Caroline is really fear for her brother’s safety, and she does, after all, help to save Caroline’s life.  The “mess” that threatens Detroit and the fictitious Poindexter family is only partly entwined with Caroline’s fate.

Morisseau’s use of famous hit songs in Detroit ’67 is as an oblique but clear commentary on the play’s central action. Morisseau has since written non-Detroit-centric plays such as the ominously entitled Pipeline, about a younger black man’s brush with the law. Pipeline was good enough to be produced at Lincoln Center and then chosen for broadcast on PBS as part of the Lincoln Center series. But Morisseau evidently still hears Motown’s siren song. She wrote the book for the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations which opened last February on Broadway. 

Page to Stage is an occasional feature for theater-goers interested in dramaturgy and criticism. The author is Dr. Page Laws, Professor of English and Dean of the R C Nusbaum Honors College, Norfolk State University (Ret.). Dr. Laws also serves on the VSC Board of Trustees.

The author is Dr. Page Laws, Professor of English and Dean of the R C Nusbaum Honors College, Norfolk State University (Ret.). Dr. Laws also serves on the VSC Board of Trustees.