- About the Play
- Behind the Scenes
- Photo Gallery
- Study Guide
For additional information, read the program online here.
To view our Behind the Scenes photo gallery, click here.
To listen to three segments from our Detroit '67 "Backstage with BJ" talk, click here.
Also, consider attending the free engagement events around this production (download schedule).
An Interview with Playwright Dominique Morisseau
Resident Dramaturg Kristin Leahey interviews Detroit '67 playwright Dominique Morisseau
KL: What's the genesis of this piece? What inspired you to write this play?
DM: Aside from me and my entire family being from Detroit, I really wanted to dive into Detroit's history and look at the important moments that changed the landscape of our city. And 1967 was definitely one of the more definitive moments. Growing up in Detroit, there is no real intellectual study of our history. There's not a lot of talk about the "riots"-though many people would tell me not to call them "riots," they'd tell me to call them "The Great Rebellion..."-So many people don't grow up learning about The Rebellion. It's not taught in schools. It's not being kept alive through conversation. So I went out to learn about it on my own. And when I found out that they were sparked by these after-hours parties, I got very excited about the idea of putting an after-hours basement party on-stage. Because I knew they were a big deal in the '60s and I had never seen that world before. Additionally, I think what made me really want to start working on this project was a desire to contribute a different narrative about Detroit than what is out there right now. I don't think the media always depicts our city with fairness. The Detroit I grew up in and understand was built on the backs of these small communities made up of real people. And I wanted to tell a story from that perspective. I wanted to bring the soul of that into the national conversation about Detroit.
KL: What was the development process? Where did you begin?
DM: My process started when I joined The Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group. They asked us to come in ready to start working on a new play. I knew I wanted to write a three-play cycle on Detroit. And I started with the topic I found to be the most interesting at the time: the riots. I started working on it in early 2010 and most of it was written by April. In June of 2011, it had its first reading at The Public. And the reading was just electrifying. It was a sold-out public reading with over 200 people in attendance. It was a predominantly black audience, mostly under the age of 40. So the energy was fantastic.
KL: It seems like music is a really big part of your life, not to mention the play. Can you talk a bit about the music in the piece?
DM: Music helps to give me a sense of the world within a play. Whenever I write, I use music as the backdrop. Even if I don't write the songs I've been listening to into the play, it still is a huge influence for me. It informs the world, gives me a local color, a language for the period, the attitude and the spirit of what I'm writing. Motown is definitely a no-brainer when it comes to Detroit in the '60s.
KL: Are there particular songs that were/are a part of your life or your parents' lives that made it into this play?
DM: There of course were groups that my parents loved. But my instinct was to look for groups or singers that I wasn't already hip to. What people listened to on a record in 1967 is not necessarily the song that was the most popular. So filling a play with music brings in another character and lets characters relate to one another through the music. I wanted these characters to listen to music that had a particular message or point of view that spoke to where they were or what they were going through, not just what was the most popular. "My Baby Loves Me" transports me to another world whenever I listen to it. It reminds me of my mother. I don't know if she used to play it for me all the time or not. But my aunt heard me mention that song and how it inspired me, and she said she used to play it for me when I was growing up and dancing with her. Somewhere subconsciously, that song lives in my mind and in my heart. It's like this song is family.
KL: Do you still have any family that lives in Detroit?
DM: Oh, all of my family lives in Detroit. All of them. There's very little empathy for the people who live in Detroit, and there's such a bleak hopelessness that's been assigned to their situation. That's what bothers me most. And the people who say those things really don't understand our city. And I think when we hear certain things about ourselves over and over we start to believe in them - even the best of us. That's the power of writing. The media really has the power to manipulate peoples' beliefs. So I too want to manipulate peoples' beliefs and get people to start believing in our city again. It's the city's music in this story that unifies people of different backgrounds, politics, and worldviews. And I think that when we are presented with stories that can teach us about that kind of heart, we can shrug off the city's labels and begin to really believe in the people that live there.
KL: You came to this project wanting to do a trilogy of plays. Can you talk a bit about the other two and how they fit into your concept for this cycle?
DM: The second play in the cycle, Paradise Blue, takes place in 1949, which was also a very important year in Detroit's history. 1949 is the year a housing act was passed that eventually led to the wiping-out of an entire community in Detroit called the "Black Bottom." And the Black Bottom had a little downtown area called Paradise Valley. And it was in this Paradise Valley that black entrepreneurship was being cultivated. Popular jazz musicians and performers were coming through the city and playing Black Bottom, and that was really the jazz heyday of the city. And while people really tend to think of Motown when they think of Detroit, the city has such a rich jazz history. I really wanted to explore that time period and what happened to the fabric of that community and how it got to be on the brink of urban renewal.
The third play, Skeleton Crew, is about the auto-industry in 2008. It follows a makeshift family of workers, the closing of their plant, and how they deal with that as a unit.
I started writing Paradise Blue after the first draft of Detroit '67 was finished, so I began working on them simultaneously. And while Detroit '67 was in production at The Public, I began writing Skeleton Crew, so the process hasn't been separated at all. And even as Northlight is working on Detroit '67, I'm working on Paradise Blue with The Public. And next spring, I'll be having a bare-bones workshop of Skeleton Crew. There's still a lot of exciting development overlap.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration, or the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West from 1916 to 1970, had a huge impact on urban life in the United States. Driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws, many blacks headed north, where they took advantage of the need for industrial workers that first arose during the First World War. As Chicago, New York and other cities saw their black populations expand exponentially, migrants were forced to deal with poor working conditions and competition for living space, as well as widespread racism and prejudice. During the Great Migration, African Americans began to build a new place for themselves in public life, actively confronting economic, political and social challenges and creating a new black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come.
Detroit experienced the greatest relative influx of African Americans. In the summer of 1922, approximately 3500 African Americans arrived in Detroit per month.
While discriminatory employment practices would persist in most industries, the emerging automobile industry, especially Ford Motor Company, began employing African Americans in increasingly larger numbers. Ford's need for workers, generally, was fueled by the implementation of standardized interchangeable parts and assembly-line techniques in 1913, which [Ford] innovated. This process, in turn, allowed Ford workers to produce cars at a quicker more affordable rate, which, contributed to the need for more workers. As with other Detroit manufacturers of this era, Ford sent agents to the South to recruit African Americans and others to work in his factory. During the same era, booming Northern industries, fueled in part by World War I in Europe (1914-1918), experienced labor shortages, as the influx of the cheap workforce from unlimited foreign immigration almost stopped completely during World War I. African-American migrants invariably established social and fraternal orders, churches and social welfare organizations to accommodate their needs.
There are few facets of life in metropolitan Detroit that were not affected by the Great Migration...While an African-American professional class began to develop in Detroit in the early part of the Great Migration, large segments of the African-American community continued to suffer from the ill-effects of poverty. The Great Migration had its affect on the multiple realities that existed in Detroit during most of the 20th century and beyond.
Motown: A Timeline
by Sean Douglass, Assistant Dramaturg
February 1958: Berry Gordy Jr., acting as an independent producer and cowriter with Smokey Robinson and Tyrone Carlo, leases the first Miracles record, "Got a Job," to New York's End label. It represents Gordy's first big foray into the record business.
January 1959: Gordy forms Motown Records after borrowing $800 from the family loan fund, the Ber-Berry Co-op.
1960: A two-story house at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard becomes Motown's first headquarters. A prophetic sign is hung out front: "Hitsville USA."
June 1966: Motown establishes an L.A. office. The announced purpose is to get Motown artists involved with the film industry.
March 1972: A Motown newsletter says there are "no plans at present to phase out the Detroit operations, as many rumors suggest." But in June, Motown announces the closing of its Detroit offices and its relocation to L.A.
January 1973: Gordy resigns as president of Motown Records to assume leadership of Motown Industries, which includes film, TV, record and publishing divisions.
March 1988: Motown Records fires 12 Detroit promotion staffers, marking the first time there are no such workers in the company's hometown.
June 1988: Motown Records is sold to MCA Inc. (the parent company of MCA Records and Universal Studios) and Boston Ventures, an investment banking firm, for $61 million.
March 2004: Gordy sells the remaining 20% of Jobete to EMI. The $80-million deal represents the last parcel in his ownership of Motown's musical kingdom.
The Great Rebellion
Compiled by Sean Douglass, Assistant Dramaturg
It is difficult to try to identify the cause of destruction. In July of 1967, The Great Rebellion began in Detroit's Twelfth Street area. A week later, 43 were dead and hundreds were injured.
Sidney Fine, author of Violence in the Model City: The Cavanaugh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riots of 1967, analyzed the root of the riots as such:
"Fine provides a detailed, complex analysis of what went wrong in the 'model city.' First, Detroit's reputation as a city able to cope with racial problems was 'less an indication of Detroit's success than of the even greater inadequacy of what was being done elsewhere.' Hostility between the police and Detroit's black community remained a serious problem, and 'given the racial climate of the 1960s and what had already occurred in places like Watts and Newark, a particular kind of incident, especially one involving the police, could trigger a riot.'
The incident that led to the riot, a police raid on a blind pig (an after-hours drinking establishment), was no more serious than others that were peacefully resolved. That this particular raid escalated into a riot Fine blames, in part, on faulty policies and poor leadership. It was a mistake, he believes, to have restrained the police in the initial seven or eight hours of the riot. This not only encouraged black rioters but it also led to 'unrestrained police behavior once the policy was abandoned.' And yet, in the end, what happened in Detroit was, at least in part, the result of chance factors. Similar conditions and similar policies in other cities or at other times in Detroit did not lead to riots. This time they did." - Alan R. Spear, 1990
One of the most talked about aspects of the 1967 Riot was that of this "unrestrained police behavior." Of the 43 lives lost, civilians caused six, seven were accidental, and officials, authorities, or guardsmen caused twenty-nine. This adds up to 42 - the cause of the last death is unknown. That's 69% of deaths caused by officials. Officials shooting at looters caused 43% of deaths, and 26% came from unnecessary fire on apartments, houses, cars, crowds, and personal attacks.
Even before the 1967 riot, Detroit's black community was in constant conflict with the police. The state of fear was continuous. The riots took police violence to a new level, but Detroit's history of police brutality was already strong. The animosity between the Detroit Police Department and the members of the city's highly populated black community was strong, and something for the black community to, eventually, rebel against. In addition to the Detroit 1967 Riots and the 12th Street Riots, the riot is also historically referred to as The Great Rebellion.
"In Detroit, during the 1960s the 'Big Four' or 'Tac Squad' roamed the streets, searching for bars to raid and prostitutes to arrest. These elite 4 man units frequently stopped youths who were driving or walking through the 12th street neighborhood. They verbally degraded these youths, calling them 'boy' and 'nigger,' asking them who they were and where they were going. Most of the time, black residents were asked to produce identification, and having suffered their requisite share of humiliation, were allowed to proceed on their way. But if one could not produce 'proper' identification, this could lead to arrest or worse. In a few notable cases, police stops led to the injury or death of those who were detained. Such excessive use of force was manifested in the 1962 police shooting of a black prostitute named Shirley Scott who, like Lester Long of Newark, was shot in the back while fleeing from the back of a patrol car. Other high profile cases of police brutality in Detroit included the severe beating of another prostitute, Barbara Jackson, in 1964, and the beating of Howard King, a black teenager, for 'allegedly disturbing the peace' ... The main issue in the minds of Detroit's black residents was police harassment and police brutality, which they identified in a Detroit Free Press Survey as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot." - Rutgers.edu
In addition to the death count and the destruction of the city's integrity, the Detroit economy was profoundly affected, in part, through the loss and the destruction of small businesses.
"In the Detroit riot of 1967, pharmacist Stanley Klein suffered a 'total loss' of his drugstore. The rioters raided his store in search of liquor and then proceeded to ransack the establishment (quoted in U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations 1968, 1526-27) ... Soon, business districts such as Detroit's 12th Street, once a 'bustling, thriving community,' became 'bleak landscape[s] of public housing, vacant lots, and windowless "party stores."'" - Jonathan Bean, 1989
Soon after The Great Rebellion, the New Detroit Committee was formed. "This organization of the city's ruling elite intended to put an end to urban unrest with a vast building program designed to replace inner-city squalor with the sleek new architecture of modern office buildings, banks, condominiums, hotels ... The program was meant to stimulate economic development, create jobs, and provide social stability and confidence for a troubled city." However, they were the antithesis of the movement led by black revolutionaries. "The rebuilding of the center of Detroit proposed would mean that eventually the blacks, Appalachians, and students who inhabited the area ... would be removed to make room for a revitalized core city repopulated by middle- and upper-class representatives of the city's various racial and ethnic groups." As this went on, "the organized state violence and the unorganized street violence of 1967 became more and more institutionalized. Motor City became Murder City. In 1973, the number of homicide victims in Detroit was triple the death toll on all sides in the civil disturbances that took place in Ireland during the same year."
"We begin with a small core of black revolutionaries who ... led a series of activities which inspired other insurgent forces within the city and beyond. More than anywhere else in the United States, the movement led by black workers defined its goal in terms of real power ... The Detroit revolutionaries did not get sidetracked into a narrow struggle against the police per se or with one aspect of power such as control of education. The movement attempted to integrate within itself all the dissident threads of the rebellious 1960s in order to create a network of insurgent power comparable to the network of established power.
Our account concludes on what may seem to be a pessimistic note. That is not our intent and our conclusion is not a pessimistic one. Nothing fundamental has changed in Detroit because the forces that controlled the city prior to 1967 still control the city and the nation. The strategies and tactics that guided their actions prior to 1967 remain more or less unaltered. Neither the ruling elite nor the workers have been able to revive the Motor City. But hundreds of thousands of people have begun to question basic assumptions about the organization and purpose of their lives and about the institutions that control them ... The people of the city of Detroit have been dealing with the crisis of power in a dramatic fashion, sometimes emphasizing race and sometimes emphasizing class, sometimes seized with fear and sometimes with vision." - From Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin
|TYLA ABERCRUMBIE (Chelle) is excited to be making her Northlight debut and to be working with her friend and mentor Ron OJ Parson, with whom she recently worked as Assistant Director for A Raisin in the Sun (TimeLine). An actor and writer, look for her around Chicago performing the third installment of her stand up series, Naked & Raw. Regional theatre credits: Asolo Repertory, TimeLine, Goodman, Court, Portland Stage Company, Pittsburgh Public, Actors' Theatre of Louisville, AWCCT, St. Louis Black Repertory, Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare, Studio Arena, Onyx, and Coronet. Film & television credits: Crisis, The Poker House, Mob Doctor, Chicago Code, Detroit 187, The Beast, ER, and AMC's new hit series Low Winter Sun. Tyla is a graduate of Columbia College with a BA in theatre.
|CASSANDRA BISSELL (Caroline) is delighted to be performing at Northlight for the first time! Chicago credits: The Tempest, Richard II, King John and Short Shakespeare! productions of Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth (Chicago Shakespeare); Arcadia, Hamlet (Court); Memory House (Victory Gardens); Mary's Wedding (Rivendell - Jeff nomination, Best Actress); In the Blood, Measure for Measure (Next). Regional credits: Much Ado About Nothing (Great Lakes/Idaho Shakespeare Festival); My Name is Asher Lev, In the Next Room (Milwaukee Repertory); Memory House, In the Next Room (Actors' Theatre of Louisville); Pride & Prejudice, Noises Off (Cleveland Play House); Crumbs from the Table of Joy (Renaissance Theaterworks); and six seasons at Peninsula Players in Door County, WI. Cassandra is a proud member of Actors' Equity and holds a degree in Gender Studies from the University of Chicago.
KAMAL ANGELO BOLDEN (Lank) is beyond thrilled to make his Northlight debut. His recent theatre credits include The Misanthrope and Jitney (Court - Jeff Nomination, Best Ensemble), Short Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare), Bud, Not Buddy (Chicago Children's), The Opponent (A Red Orchid Theatre - Jeff Nomination/Black Theatre Alliance Award Nomination - Principal Actor), Immediate Family (Goodman/About Face), The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and We Are Proud to Present... (Victory Garden), and The Island (Remy Bumppo - BTAA Winner, Outstanding Leading Actor). Film & television credits: Low Winter Sun, Betrayal, Chicago Fire, Boss, Lights Out, and The Row. An ensemble member at A Red Orchid Theatre, he is represented by Paonessa Talent.
|COCO ELYSSES (Bunny) is an actress, musician, playwright, screenwriter, and poet. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing and was published before graduation. Her voice can be heard in the permanent museum installation Skywatchers of Africa. Her voice is also in the Saint's Row video game Ever Quest II, and Watchdogs. Coco's one-woman show You Can't Hide debuted at MPAACT's solo jam series. She has appeared in The Old Settler, Shakin the Mess Outta Misery, and Hydraulics Phat Like Mean. Coco was also a featured musician in the book Black Women and Music: More than The Blues and the film Jazz: A Documentary. She has performed with the Great Black Music Ensemble in Pisa, Italy. Coco's poetry is in 99 New Poems: A Contemporary Anthology, and in America is ... Personal Essays for Social Justice. She is a member of SAG, AFTRA, AEA, AFM, and the AACM.
|KELVIN ROSTON JR. (Sly) is very excited to be making his Northlight debut. Credits include: Dreamgirls as James "Thunder" Early (Theatre Orb [Tokyo, Japan], Festival Hall [Osaka, Japan], Maine State Music Theatre [Brunswick, ME], Fulton [Lancaster, PA], Marriott Lincolnshire), Crowns (Goodman), The Jackie Wilson Story as Jackie Wilson (Black Ensemble - Jeff Award nominee, BTAA winner, Black Excellence Award winner), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Porgy and Bess (Court), The Old Settler (Writers), Pill Hill (eta Creative Arts Foundation - BTAA winner). Regional credits include: Ruined, Death and the King's Horseman, Dreamgirls (St. Louis Black Repertory), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (HotCity), Beowulf (Metro), Mama (Unity), and Porgy and Bess (Union Avenue Opera). Kelvin is a proud member of Actors' Equity Association. "We are the portals through which our story continues."
by Dominique Morisseau
Scenic Design Jack Magaw, USA
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Costume Design Nan Cibula-Jenkins, USA
Wigs/Makeup Christine Conley
Lighting Design JR Lederle
Sound Design Nick Keenan
Dramaturg Kristin Leahey, Ph. D.
Stage Manager Malcolm Ewen, AEA
Production photos by Michael Brosilow
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
Detroit '67 - Scene 1
Detroit '67 - Scene 2
Motown plays as streets burn, conflicts simmer
November 17, 2013
By CHRIS JONES
Detroit '67 not only is a very interesting idea, but you can see that [author Dominique] Morisseau already has figured out the structure for something much larger and has realized how well huge moments can be represented by small personal experiences. (Her tavern here is not unlike New York's Stonewall.) Morisseau's main point, her very telling point, is that the notion of Detroit as "a Negro mecca" was undermined from the start by white menace and corruption. It is represented here not only by telling the story of those vice-infused police officers, which is well-documented in history, but also by the inclusion of the Caroline character, who functions partly as a dangerous sexual siren ready to sap the power of black men, partly as a spy and partly as a reminder of the promise of racial harmony. That last theme is bolstered by the crossover Motown soundtrack, playing on an 8-track player in the corner, singing of love and unity in what history has shown us was a fatal moment in the life of a city.
Having said all that, the Northlight audience certainly responded warmly to this hugely promising play, generally well-acted on Jack Magaw's straightforward setting ... I for one am fascinated by Detroit, where I've spent a bit of time. It is fertile ground for writers and artists now in all kinds of ways. And you already can see here that Morriseau not only is invested in this town, but she knows where to look to understand how, where and when things went so badly wrong.
A city starts to unravel in intriguing Detroit '67
November 17, 2013
By HEDY WEISS
In her play Detroit ’67, now in a winningly realized Northlight Theatre production, Dominique Morisseau looks at what many cite as the beginning of the Motor City’s downward slide.
She has set her story in the semi-finished basement of a working-class home at the epicenter of the chaos — Detroit’s near West Side — where a police raid of a popular, unlicensed, after-hours bar became the flashpoint of the riots. The owners of the house, Chelle (Tyla Abercrumbie, an actress of great radiance and emotional fervency) and her brother, Lank (the easefully intense Kamal Angelo Bolden), are running a little house-party operation of their own at the time.
In a very real sense, Morisseau has picked up where Lorraine Hansberry left off in A Raisin in the Sun, the 1959 drama that Detroit ’67 director Ron OJ Parson staged earlier this season at TimeLine Theatre. Key to both plays is the opposing attitudes of two siblings. Chelle, a young widow and mother of a son attending Tuskegee University, is determined to hold on to the hard-won gains made by her parents. But Lank, ambitious and restless, wants to forge his own future, taking a risk by buying a night spot of his own with his pal, Sly (Kelvin Roston Jr., all mischief and hustle).
Theater: '67 Crystallizes Motown And Madness A Generation Experienced
Northlight Theatre mounted a riveting production of one family's 1967 experience, from dancing parties to ambition to the great race riot that crippled a city.
November 23, 2013
By JENNIFER FISHER
It's challenging to tell a personal story that opens the lens wide on a drastic event in history.
Northlight Theatre's Midwest premiere production of Detroit 67 does it powerfully, examining the experience of an adult African-American sister (Chelle) and brother (Lank) who run dance parties in the basement of the home their parents left them--a convincing 1960s set by Jack Magaw, complete with laundry and linoleum tiles--to earn a few extra bucks.
The dance-party element fortunately gave playwright Dominique Morisseau a reason to lace the play with great Motown hits--from the fun tunes that carry the upbeat mood of the two young siblings and their best pals Bunny and Sylvester, to the pensiveness as the brother, Lank, starts falling into a then-forbidden affection for a white woman, and then the mixture of sadness, grief and resolve that mark the aftermath of how the enormous July 1967 Detroit riot affects the characters.
... [T]his is a well-written, beautifully performed work of theater that puts a human face on the racial strife and riots of the 1960s, showing us, the audience, the toll they took on a vibrant family. Under Ron OJ Parsons' direction, the essential goodness and compassion of the characters comes through, which makes the events that unfold all the more shocking.
Detroit ’67 timely look at the racial divide
November 6, 2013
By CATEY SULLIVAN
ou can’t actually see either of the two galvanizing forces that indelibly alter the lives of the tight-knit brother/sister team at the heart of “Detroit ’67,” at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre. But the infectious sounds of Motown and the terrifying sounds of riots all but serve as additional characters in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s emotionally charged exploration of ferocious civil unrest and equally intense family ties.
In the hands of veteran, much-lauded Chicago director Ron OJ Parson, Detroit ’67 is both deeply rooted in the titular time and place, and as urgently relevant as the latest headlines.
“A lot of people want to say we’re living in a post-racial society because we’ve got a black president, but in some places of the country? It’s worse than ever,” says Parson.
For Langston, Chelle and Sylvester, the danger outside literally enters their apartment when the two men find a young white woman, dazed, bleeding and incoherent, wandering the streets. Simply by doing the decent human thing— taking her in and tending to her wounds — they put themselves in grave danger.
Still, the enigmatic Caroline is a catalyst for hope, says Bolden, so that Detroit ’67 is ultimately a joyful, hopeful play.
“There’s positivity that eventually shines through,” says Parson, “We’re still fighting a protracted struggle. But we’re making progress.”
Top 5 non-holiday Chicago shows
No taste for chestnuts? Here are 5 holiday-free alternatives
November 27, 2013
By CHRIS JONES
[I]f you are interested in the history and fate of the Motor City, Detroit '67, which is the work of a very promising young writer named Dominique Morrisseau, offers some provocative insights into how the past has informed a bankrupt present. I was struck by how engrossed the Northlight audience seemed during this piece.