Riots and rebellion: Themes of ‘Detroit ′67’ pack a punch decades later
By AMY POULTER
OCTOBER 24, 2019
For five days in 1967, Detroit was embroiled in dissension. Rebellion was in the air and city streets resembled war zones.
Considered part of the national riots known as the “long, hot summer of 1967,” unrest in Detroit began when the police department raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar on the city’s West Side.
This week, the Virginia Stage Company begins to bring that chaos and conflict to the stage in its production of “Detroit ′67.”
Though the setting is more than 50 years ago, director Tom Jones said the play’s theme holds true to today.
The circumstances may be different, but we’re still bumping up against some of the same issues,” Jones said in a phone interview. “Some of those issues, we thought we had reconciled, like issues of race, class and gender.”
But we haven’t, Jones said.
For 120 or so hours in Detroit, battles between black residents and police raged. The state’s Army National Guard responded, and President Lyndon Johnson sent the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to aid law enforcement forces.
By the time peace was restored, 43 people had been killed.
More than 1,100 people were injured, and an astonishing 7,200 residents were arrested. Several blocks of buildings were set ablaze, their bricks reduced to charred rubble.
“We’re not far removed from police shootings in our neighborhoods," Jones said. "We see mass shootings and officer-involved shootings. We deal with that kind of mass carnage every day and we recognize that it’s nothing new. Each generation has to kind of come to grips with that. It makes ‘Detroit ′67,’ unfortunately, very, very contemporary.”
At the heart of the play, written by Detroit native Dominique Morisseau, a brother and sister turn their basement into an after-hours bar after receiving an inheritance from their parents.
The speakeasy-style hangout gives residents a place to gather and talk about their dilemmas and whether they should chase their dreams or cling to their comforts. Along the way, the play’s five main characters reach conclusions about what democracy truly means.
“These ordinary men and women, it’s about how they each decipher democracy, how they deconstruct it and make sense out of it,” Jones said.
As we see in the world now, Jones said, there’s too much happening on any given day. The same is true in Morisseau’s retelling of the Detroit riots, but it’s a story that sticks with you long after it’s over.
“I call it doggy-bag theater,” Jones said with an audible grin. “You’re going to want to take some of this home with you, unpack it, heat it up and take a bite.