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Theatre Review: "Detroit '67" at Ensemble is an Audience Pleaser

Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers has rounded up a solid cast for the regional premiere of Detroit ’67a family drama that plays out to the Motown sound and against the backdrop of one of America’s historic race riots.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s script is a bit too neat, but it’s an audience-pleaser. And she’s looking at an important moment in time for our nation – and one that feels ripped from the headlines today, as the nightly news seems to have daily footage (make that iPhone video) of police using excessive force against young black men. (It’s worth mentioning Detroit ‘67 was announced almost a year ago, long before racial tension became news again.)

Zina Camblin and Bryant Bentley are the strong lead players as sister and brother Chelle and Lank. The action plays out in the lived-in basement of their late parents’ home, a room that tells you everything you need to know about who they are and when and how they live, right down to the Joe Lewis fist drawn on the wall (by their dad), the laundry hanging on a line in the back and the make-shift bar against one wall.

Chelle and Lank are making ends meet by hosting ‘basement parties’ (illegal after-hours parties) in their late parents’ home and it’s especially dicey because the police are cracking down.

They have some money coming and they’re at odds. Chelle is a single mother with a son in college. She’s about playing it safe – Chelle won’t even give up her sorry excuse for a phonograph for an 8-track. Lank (short for Langston) has big plans. For him, “life is not about keeping what you’ve got, life is about building something new.”

That new thing is a legit neighborhood bar, which he and best friend Sly (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) want to buy.  Sly has a thing for Chelle, but she’s not inclined to take chances where her heart is involved, either.

Soon enough, Lank and Sly are carting an unconscious, blonde (Leslie Goddard) down the stairs. She’s clearly been beaten and doesn’t have any ID. When she wakes up, she remains mysterious. She gives the name Caroline, and she’s looking for a safe place to stay. (Uh-oh.)

Once the pieces are in place, the plot goes from A to B to C with no surprises. But Morisseau has created honest characters and Meyers and her ensemble breathe life into them, so much so that they carry the play’s clunkiest clichés with ease.

These people have troubles, large and small, and one big tribulation, as what seems like a war rages in their neighborhood during the second act. No fiction here – it’s a scary time and place, so scary that every time someone leaves you worry about them coming back.

Bentley and Camblin shine, and so, too, does the property work of Shanna Rae Lutz, responsible for the period décor, which isn’t just about lower income but about inner life. 

Leslie Goddard is always a pleasure to watch, and Benjamin is the strongest I’ve seen him on stage.  Burgess Byrd generates energy as Chelle’s flamboyant and truth-speaking gal pal Bunny.

Detroit ’67, through 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.ensemblecincinnati.org.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts

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