Detroit '67, the riveting new play by Dominique Morisseau, is a period piece, then again it is not. Set in Detroit in 1967 with white residential flight and street rebellion and violence as the backdrop (plus the thick and ugly tensions between police and community), this slice of America could easily be the present-day, given the charred divisions around gentrification, racial profiling, and class warfare across our fair land. But what makes Morisseau's play so mind-blowing is the language. Her ear is in the tradition of the people's poet Langston Hughes and the people's soul collector Zora Neale Hurston; plus Morisseau is a direct heir to the magical wordsmiths named Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson. You feel the pulse and vibrations of her characters, all working-class sheroes and heroes, as they navigate, in their space and time (with humor, with sadness), the chaos pounding the smoke-stained windows of their basement after-hours spot.
A real twist occurs when a young white female character literally drops into the middle of the Detroit of Motown, numbers runners, and all forms of hustling in the name of survival. And one major part of their surviving is the music. Morisseau samples the sounds of Motown throughout her play, and these tunes take on a different and extraordinary meaning. No longer snappy pop nuggets from a hit-making factory, they become the raw emotional soundtrack of a community sick and tired of being sick and tired, but not quite clear which direction to the promised land. So not only do we get challenges of how we have been taught to love and hate, ourselves, each other, but a big push to have the courage to travel to that blurred region where we speak, not as a race, or a class, or a gender, but as the human beings that we are.
So a "riot," as Dr. King once said, is not just the language of the unheard. It becomes us, trapped inside our shared histories and hand-me-down traumas, doing whatever we can to be free. And freedom is a word this playwright clearly has in mind with Detroit '67. Your freedom, our freedom, since you cannot be completely free if we are not completely free.
You can catch the play currently at the Public Theater in New York City or when it moves to Harlem at the National Black Theatre in a few weeks.