You can't see the footage of burned and bombed-out buildings onstage in PlayMakers Rep's production of Detroit '67. But you know director Lisa Rothe and set designer Lee Savage clearly have. Playwright Dominique Morisseau's 2013 script places her characters in the modest cinderblock basement of a middle-class family on the west side of Detroit in a tilting place and time: one block east of 12th Street, the site of the July riots that marked the height of the long hot summer of 1967.
The room remains a gallery of childhood moments, with fingerpaint handprints on the wall and a picture Lank (Myles Bullock) once drew of his big sister, Chelle (an austere Rachel Christopher), on the corner fridge. Now grown up, they plan to make this room an after-hours club for money to keep Chelle's son in college. But before two harrowing acts occur, the space repeatedly serves as a bunker against encroaching hostilities.
Before they take place, family friends Bunny (a bubbly Tangela Large) and Sly (Charlie Hudson III) help decorate and upgrade the self-styled speakeasy, inaugurating a high-grade technical shift for the sound systems of the time—from scratchy 45s to eight-track tapes. But when Sly and Lank rescue a beaten white woman (Katy Castaldi), that act of kindness ultimately places them all in jeopardy.
Lank dreams of opening a legitimate club and complains of having to conceal his basement bar from the police, "like the only way I can be somethin' is underground." But his dreams of love and commercial ambition are checked by his pessimistic sister, Chelle, who fears, with good reason, the corruption and chaos just outside their door.
Ultimately, the cornered pair must either confront their fears or accept the sequestered room. Morisseau reminds us that explosions provide propulsion, among other things—including, occasionally, an exit that was not there before. Well worth seeing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Interrupters"