Dominique Morisseau

Reaching Out

Review of Detroit ’67, Hartford Stage

In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit exploded. There was looting and arson in black neighborhoods, where the racist treatment by the police incensed the residents into violence. The police, and eventually the National Guard and U.S. Army, retaliated. The rebellion played out over five days as the most destructive riot of the many that occurred that summer, and one of the worst in U.S. history.

Halfway through Dominque Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, playing through March 10 at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, the chaos in the streets starts and impinges on the story. At that point, the play, concerned with a drama of personalities, is set against a threatening background that will likely lead to death. If the role of the offstage violence in the play seems a bit convenient, its presence makes clear the kind of underground life these characters live, the risks they face, and the resentments below the surface.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Set entirely in the basement of the house Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey), short for Langston as in Hughes, grew up in, the action, initially, concerns the siblings’ efforts to earn money by hosting afterhours parties in the basement. To that end, Lank, contrary to his sister’s devotion to vinyl, has procured a new-fangled device: an 8-track player! Such details take us back to a different time, greatly aided by Dede M. Ayite’s period costumes and Leah J. Loukas’ hair and makeup design. The feeling of a bygone era is key to the play, recreating a world in which the greats of Motown—Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops—are at the top of their game. As a defining export from black Detroit also beloved of white America, Motown was an important cultural ambassador, a fact which makes the hostility in the streets all the more searing.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

The long shadow of that era in popular culture means we feel we know these characters and how they interact. They’re familiar, whether it’s the clash between the siblings over how to spend their inheritance from their deceased parents—Lank wants to invest in opening his own club, Chelle is skeptical—or Lank’s smooth-talking buddy and would-be business partner Sly (Will Cobbs), who may be sweet on Chelle, or Chelle’s sassy and brassy friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie) who has “a lot to go-around.” Into this mix, even before we get to the riots, enters Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white girl in a go-go outfit whom Lank can’t help helping when he finds her wandering dazed, bloodied, and bruised in traffic.

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Now we’ve got the makings for interracial romance, and that might be enough of a vehicle for revisiting the way black and white cultures didn’t cross lines much during those times. That they might and did was part of the thrill and risk when the races mixed, and Le Vine and Ramey do a good job of playing with a fire set on a low heat. It could catch, but there are many complications, not least Chelle’s aversion to Caroline—though she lets her stay and help with serving in the basement club—and Lank’s unease about going behind his sister’s back to buy a real club that’s up for sale.

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Director Carroll is skilled with a play that has a lot of episodic encounters, its characters chatting and sometimes grooving to the tunes, while having little moments of discontent or disagreement. The pacing, for a play that runs to two and a half hours, is nearly flawless. And, while we can feel the plot like a net closing in, there are many nice touches that keep our disbelief suspended. Not least is what strikes me as the heart of what Morisseau is getting at: a plaintive grievance that Chelle sounds to Bunny about what she sees as a kind of betrayal in Lank’s interest in Caroline. And that means that Lank is apt to fail his sister where it counts.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

At the heart of the play, then, is Chelle, and Myxolydia Tyler lets us hear her, not least in a gripping moment when the seductive power of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” reaches catharsis. Cobbs, groomed to look perfectly the part, is suitably sly and sexy as Sly, and Allie’s Bunny offers both comic relief and canny appraisal of the others, the kind of friend you want on your side.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

The further plot elements—the vulnerability of the club during the disturbances, Caroline’s ties to corrupt cops, the doomed love aspects—begin to pile up as though Morisseau can’t resist reaching out, trying to bring in all the possible obstacles and upsets the time and place afford. If there were less story, there might be more time for the characters to complicate the roles they’ve been written into.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

An ambitious, at times meandering play, Detroit ’67 works at Hartford Stage in Carroll’s capable way with a capable cast, each contributing to an engaging ensemble. Like the five-part vocals of a song by The Temptations, Detroit ’67 gives each voice its space.

 

Detroit ‘67
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Hair & Makeup Design: Leah J. Loukas; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Production Stage Manager: Heather Klein; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Nyahale Allie, Will Cobbs, Ginna Le Vine, Johnny Ramey, Myxolydia Tyler

Hartford Stage
February 14-March 10, 2019

Paradise Missed

Review of Paradise Blue, Long Wharf Theatre

With her trilogy of plays set in different eras in Detroit, Dominique Morisseau is making her mark on Connecticut. First up is Paradise Blue, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through December 16. At Hartford Stage early in 2019 will be Detroit ’67, followed by Skeleton Crew at Westport Country Playhouse in June. Comparisons to August Wilson, who wrote ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, mostly in Pittsburgh (some of which debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre), are perhaps unavoidable. Like Wilson, Morisseau sets the plays in one town at different eras and writes with a feel for how the people who live there talk, peppering their colloquial tones with references to poets and musicians and significant contextual events—here, the fact that Paradise Valley, a famed strip of businesses and jazz joints owned by African Americans, is perilously close to being razed in favor of “urban renewal,” that catch-all phrase for driving out those unwanted by the city’s vested interests. The play’s dialogue has a robust feel for the people of a unique period, even if the plot invites comparisons to many a noirish B-movie.

P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

We have Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), the inheritor of a jazz club his old man originated, making a go of it with his house band, while his paramour and factotum Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) keeps everything shipshape in the kitchen and in the rooming-house upstairs. As the play starts, the combo’s drummer, P-Sam (Freddie Fulton) is learning to his dismay that their bass player has quit over altercations with Blue. Genial elder piano-player Corn (Leon Addison Brown) tries to strike a conciliatory note. The back and forth of all this establishes that Blue, whatever his actual talents, views himself as the best trumpeter and best leader of a combo in the best club with the best accommodations in the Black Bottom area of Detroit. He can be more than a bit overbearing. Meanwhile, P-Sam seems sweet on poetry-reciting Pumpkin and would be plying her with “I’ll take you away from all this” blandishments, if only she weren’t so dedicated to Blue.

Into this volatile situation strides Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), with a walk that has “femme fatale” written all over it. She’s from Louisiana and she’s got money and attitude and a history with jazz clubs. What’s more, she makes no secret of the fact that her Ex met an early demise. Her status as a woman of mystery seems like the main plot point—the men call her a “spider,” and we wonder who’s going to get caught in her web. Meanwhile, Blue, coming to terms with his declining powers as a performer, may be ready to sell the joint to those developers nosing around—and Silver might be interested.

For Morisseau, with the hindsight of what became of Paradise Valley, Blue can be seen as a selfish culprit, engaged in a form of race or at least community betrayal. The possibilities of what will develop keeps us in the play, though there’s no role here that sets the measure of the drama. In this production, directed by Awoye Timpo (previously an Associate Director on Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway), each character functions as part of the plot, but without giving us much sense of inner illumination. The big reveal before the Act One curtain is that Silver’s got a gun.

Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

What Morisseau delivers—which tended to elude Wilson—is a heart-to-heart between the female characters. If the males here are mostly perfunctory—with Addison Brown fairing best in making his every scene shine—the two women have a chance in Act Two to get some things out on the bedspread. In Silver’s tidy little room, complete with record-player and Lester Young LPs she brought along, the two come to terms with spousal abuse, which Silver suffered in the past and Pumpkin is suffering from now. The scene plays out as an awakening for Pumpkin, a view of how things could be changed with Blue, but we might still wonder about Silver’s motives. That she’s there to undermine Blue is clear from the start; she also romances Corn—their post-coital scene in bed plays well as a frank chat between a woman who doesn’t want to get caught and an aging gent looking for a lover who will stick. And yet, when things get violent—as they must—Silver is off to the side, an onlooker at a situation she helped inspire.

Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Without going too far into the dynamics of how that happens, and how docile Pumpkin, a woman who seems genuinely to enjoy serving men (this is 1949, after all), and whose idea of cussing is to say “Fudge!” and “Grits!,” ends up brandishing a weapon, let’s just say that Morisseau determines that the most dramatic outcome will be the least probable. And who can argue with that?

It’s troubling that a few key scenes in this production don’t manage to land with the level of feeling Morisseau may intend. Key to where the play goes is a scene early on between Blue and Pumpkin. Whatever the level of abuse she later admits reluctantly to Silver, in this scene Pumpkin seems fully attached to Blue, despite his “demons.” Those demons take the form of both abuse of others and a devastating memory that gets trotted out like a required traumatic backstory. Williams’ Blue never quite delivers fire, despair or threat, seeming to be a blusterer who likes female sympathy and the sound of his own voice. If there’s anything deeper in this “genius” (so-called by Corn and Pumpkin) it has to make its presence felt.

As Corn, Leon Addison Brown is likeable, with a folksiness that helps us feel the set-in-its-ways tones of the locale. He also delivers the show’s best speech about how being a black man in a white world is a constant check to the ambitions of a big talent like Blue. Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam is volatile, comical, belligerent when drunk, sweet when he tries to be, and he gives a good account of a proud and underappreciated heart. As Pumpkin, Margaret Odette is never quite as mousy as maybe she should be, having a definite point of view. She seems our contemporary, despite her penchant for poetry with antiquated locutions like “nay.” As Silver, or trouble in a tight-skirt, Carolyn Michelle Smith makes some grand exits and entrances, and wears well the sleepwear she’s assigned, but what she’s meant to manifest—other than temptation for the men and a view with no illusions to Pumpkin—never quite arrives.

Some of the fault with this production’s lukewarm temperature comes from the staging. Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set, a club in its off-hours, looks suitable and creates a public yet intimate space for what amount to haphazard encounters. The bedroom slides in over the bar—a production element a bit too slickly distracting—and is an odd box of a space for some major scenes to play out in. For music, we have prerecorded bits that give us the lone, lorn horn of Blue, occasional jazzy background, and accompaniment for a little song-poem from Pumpkin. For a play situated in a beloved and storied center of jazz and blues, it all looks and sounds a bit antiseptic. Given our druthers we might well decamp for another club along the strip well before the show’s over.

 

Paradise Blue
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Awoye Timpo

Set Design: Yu-Hsuan Chen; Costume Design: Lex Liang; Lighting Design: Oona Curley; Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Composer: Alphonso Horne; Hair & Wig Design: Jason Hayes; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight House: Original Artwork: Hollis King; Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Leon Addison Brown, Freddie Fulton, Margaret Odette, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Stephen Tyrone Williams

Long Wharf Theatre
November 21-December 16, 2018