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Motown Songs Sound Different in a Riot

Date: Mar 05, 2013


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Ideas can be hard to come by for writers, but Dominique Morisseau only had to look to her hometown's history. The legacies of Detroit were the germ of what is now Detroit 67, a new Public Lab production co-produced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem. (The show runs through March 17 at the Public, then moves to the National Black Theatre from March 23 through April 14.)

Set against the backdrop of the 1967 race riots in Motor City, Detroit 67 follows brother and sister Lank and Chelle as they confront a microcosm of '60s upheaval from their after-hours club. The night spot offers respite from the outside turmoil with a Motown soundtrack that's as much a character as the siblings.

"My goal with the music is not just to have a play with a bunch of music I like," Morisseau says. "When I got to live in the life of 1967 for a while and be in the mindset of Vietnam and the changing politics, that music had a different resonance.

"For me, the music is there to show how much of a need people had for the music of that time. When music is speaking to the time or when it is supporting you in the times you're living in, there's a beautiful marriage."

Using Motown music created a new set of challenges, however, since any song that might be too recognizable would immediately take the audience out of the play---and possibly incur an impromptu sing-along.

That's why each track was selected for its place in the story Morisseau was telling, not as an easy nostalgia trip. Even familiar hits are often heard in new and startling ways: For instance, when one character sings The Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," it works both as an ardent declaration of love and as a deeper, we're-all-in-this-together message about community.

Beyond the soundtrack, Detroit 67 also tackles one of the ugliest moments in the city's history---one that Morisseau's own family lived through.

While in Detroit working on the script, Morisseau was on her way to the public library to do research when she mentioned the play to her uncle. A former journalist, he looked at her sideways, left, and then returned with two binders filled with articles he'd written about the riots. "All of a sudden I felt 12 and had to do my homework," Morisseau says with a laugh. "So most of my information came from my family, their memories, and their elders' memories."

With a personal connection to the events she was writing about, Morisseau felt added pressure to get things right. "Every time I start a new play I think this is the hardest play I've ever written, but trying to write about Detroit at all was daunting," she says. "We're so misrepresented that Detroiters are very protective about the narrative of the city. I write from a place of love and not condemnation, [but] it's still a great responsibility."

Morisseau began the play as part of the Public's Emerging Writers Program. She recalls the notes she received from her fellow writers as being very encouraging, and while she was in the group, she tried to remain as truthful to the riots as possible while giving herself permission to make room for emotions.

To that end, the blend of narrative events and background information adds a constant tension to Chelle and Lank's story, placing their personal experiences squarely in a historical context. That makes sense, given that Morisseau describes herself as an artist who is passionate about how individuals work in the larger world. "The throughline for me is community," she says. "Building toward a community, not away from a community."

Tomorrow, TDF's education program will present a special matinee of Detroit 67. Click here to learn how TDF makes theatre accessible to students


Mark Peikert is N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage Magazine

Photo by Joan Marcus