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Racial Tension in Motown Revisited in "Detroit '67" at Ensemble

It’s the Motown sound – and it’s urgent drama, too, set in 1967 Detroit, where racial tension between African-Americans and the police are running high and brother and sister Lank and Chelle bitterly disagree about grooving on the edge of the law as they run “basement parties” to keep the family house.

‘Basement parties’ were also known as unlicensed after-hours joints, and that summer the police were cracking down in black neighborhoods as folks danced to the songs of The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

In Detroit ’67, at Ensemble Theatre March 17-April 5, it’s exactly the kind of place and party that kicked off days of race riots in Detroit in July 23, 1967, when police raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar and lit a tinder box.

If you know your American history, you know it was one of the largest riots in U.S. history. The National Guard and the U.S. Army were called in and at the end of five days, here were the numbers: 43 dead, 1,189 injured, more than 7,200 arrests, more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. 

Like so many shows on area stages in early 2015, Detroit ‘67 speaks directly to the unrest we’ve all seen play out on the national news over the past few months – all of the shows announced up to a year ago. 

Playwright Dominique Morisseau won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama inspired by American History for Detroit ’67.  When she won the prize she explained she wanted to pull history off the pages of books, make it something “You can dance to, sing along with,” Morisseau said. “Have an emotional relationship with it, not just intellectual.”

The strong Ensemble cast includes Burgess Byrd, Darnell Pierre Roberts, and Leslie Goddard but at the center are ETC veteran Zina Camblin as Chelle and Bryan Bentley in his ETC debut as Lank (short for Langston, as in Hughes.)

Camblin and Bentley took time during rehearsals for a quick Q&A:

RCN:  Playwright Dominique Morisseau said she wanted to bring history to life with Detroit 67. There's been lots of trying to figure out how to do that in schools. Has she found a solution? 

Camblin: She’s done an excellent job. The story puts us smack dab in the middle of the goings on but does it through the eyes of a brother and sister who are just trying to survive the best way they know how.

Bentley: I wish we could put on more productions like this to teach our children in schools.

RCN: Were you familiar with the Detroit riot? 

Camblin: I had heard about it happening but didn't know what started it or any of the real details.

Bentley: I was not familiar with the riots. I can't recall anyone discussing it as well. I'm learning myself as we go through this journey.

RCN: Did you do any research for the play? 

Camblin: I watched a lot of footage of the riots online and read source material on the riots and racial tensions of that time period in Detroit. I did research on certain things (items, people, events) mentioned in the script that were time specific that I was unfamiliar with.

RCN: Is it fun to revisit the Motown sound?

Camblin: Definitely. Because of this show I now have a Motown Pandora station that I should have discovered long ago. I enjoy listening to it tremendously.

Bentley: Yes! I have always been a lover of Motown music. Even to this day, I still listen to the classics. I can remember when I was a kid Motown was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a TV special and I can remember seeing Michael Jackson moonwalking for the very first time! I think the whole family was up on their feet screaming at the television!

RCN: How important is the role the music plays?

Bentley: To me, the music is the heart of the play. It really helps tell the story. It also ushers the mood of the scene as well and even back then it brought people together. It was like "Ministry." Every audience member will be snapping their fingers to every song...I can guarantee that.

RCN: The play is set almost 50 years ago. Do you see commonalities in characters and actions then and now?

Camblin: A lot of this play deals with police brutality and how people respond to it, which unfortunately hasn't changed much since 1967. Cops still target black men and it remains a serious problem in the black community. People still come together in protest and in mourning, just as they did then. People still need some way to deal with their fear and anger just as they did then.

Bentley: I do. I see similar characters today. Like my character, Lank. I've always been a dreamer myself. Even when I was a child growing up on food stamps in a three-bedroom house with two brothers and two sisters. I've always seen myself on a bigger platform and I could never accept our living conditions to be all we had to expect. 

Even today that same hunger is within me and I really understand how this young man felt to want to have something that no one can take away from him. Even when it seemed like the end of the world was happening, he still held on to believing things will get better.

RCN: As you prepare and rehearse, are you feeling echoes of then in the 'now' of the police incidents of a few months ago?

Camblin: There is no way after seeing or reading this play that you will not think of the recent happenings in Ferguson. 

My character even has a line about not understanding why black people are burning up their own city as a way of fighting back. "That isn't hurting anybody but us." I remember thinking that same thing when watching the riots in Ferguson and seeing all the businesses that had been destroyed. 

Bentley: Yes. Exploring this production not only reminds me of my past but it definitely echoes today. Police brutality is still alive and well. 

Detroit ’67, March 7-April 4. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over the Rhine. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $28-$44, students $25, children $18. Rush tickets (half-price for adults, $15 students) available two hours prior to performance, by phone or at the box office. 513-421-3555 and www.cincinnatiensemble.org.

Performance Schedule

Performances run Tuesday through Sunday. Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 8:00 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 2:00 pm; and Sunday, 7:00 pm. A complete calendar is available at www.ensemblecincinnati.org.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts

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