‘Race riot” is an inflammatory phrase in Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” a history play ringing modern alarms at Baltimore’s Center Stage. It’s 1967, and tensions are high between blacks looking for progress and whites clinging to power. As the radio reports on National Guard forces sweeping the Motor City’s streets, a black listener scoffs at the term “race riot,” arguing that the words unfairly convey an image of blacks out of control.
Morisseau taps into 50-year-old tensions that won’t seem alien to today’s audiences, yet the freshest thing about the play may be its sexual politics. The story is set in the Detroit basement of a woman named Chelle and her brother, Lank, who have inherited the house from their late parents. To make ends meet, they run a sort of nightclub downstairs. The show’s twist comes when Lank and his pal Sly bring home a battered white girl named Caroline they found staggering on the streets.
As Caroline heals and her sordid back story dribbles into view, she and Lank begin to eye each other romantically while Sly woos a reluctant Chelle to the strains of Motown hits. For Morisseau, public discord profoundly informs private lives, especially as the characters stride into the minefield of interracial romance.
This makes for a big and largely engaging show, although not one without its downsides. The acting is sometimes too understated to fill the wide auditorium at Towson University’s Center for the Arts, where Center Stage is based while its downtown Baltimore complex is renovated. (The production will transfer to Detroit Public Theatre next month.) The cool approach also emphasizes Morisseau’s tendency to meander, although let’s note that “Detroit ’67” packs enough punch that in 2014 it won the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for a script inspired by U.S. history. “All the Way” and “Hamilton” have won that, too — heavy company.
Director Kamilah Forbes applies a steady hand, and the characters benefit from the scrupulous sensitivity. Michelle Wilson is the sturdy center as Chelle, a pragmatic woman whose seriousness registers vividly across Wilson’s grave face. (Wilson originated the role when Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah directed the premiere at New York’s Public Theater.) Amari Cheatom is pensive as the hustler Lank, who wants to spend the small family inheritance — against Chelle’s objections — to open a real nightclub with Sly.
That plot comes straight out of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” something that has loomed large as Center Stage recently produced the post-“Raisin” plays “Clybourne Park” and Kwei-Armah’s response, “Beneatha’s Place.” Dreams deferred is a theme, and not for nothing is Lank named after Langston Hughes. Morisseau spins a nice riff on this, even if she doesn’t always reveal surprising information surprisingly.
Her wooing scenes are certainly alive with the hassles blazing just outside, and the 1960s heat is rendered on a big scale by Michael Carnahan’s two-story set and Alex Basco Koch’s projections. The period is further revived via Dede Ayite’s costumes, starting with a wild bell-bottom pantsuit for the flamboyant Bunny (an effervescent Jessica Frances Dukes) that looks as if it was patterned after a lava lamp.
The men aren’t shortchanged in this balanced drama, and Brian Marable is a very adult kind of cool as the foxy Sly. But it’s the discussions among the women that give this play its lift, especially the reckoning between Wilson’s tough Chelle and Sarah Nealis’s bruised, resilient Caroline. The Rep Stage production of “Sunset Baby” last spring marked Morisseau as a writer to follow, and although she may not be the smoothest of technicians, her issues — and her people — are productively messy.
Center Stage, at Towson University’s Center for the Arts, 1 Fine Arts Dr., Towson, Md. 410-332-0033. centerstage.org.
Dates: Through May 8.