Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 s recently finished its four-week run at the Penumbra Theatre. The Detroit-born Morrisseau did her best to dramatize the events that this reporter lived through the five days of violence that took place in my hometown in late July, 1967.
“I think Dominique has done such a [great] job showing us who these people are…and that they are normal people,” said actress Elizabeth Efteland (Caroline) after the May 15 performance. “The play is so universal, honest and real.”
“I think it hit home” to many who saw the play, added Austene Van (Chelle), who gushed about her closing scene in the play when she dances to the Four Tops’ “Reach Out.” “I love the hope of this play,” she said.
Afterwards, Van asked how I felt about seeing the play. “Did it feel third world to you?” she asked.
For the most part, Morisseau’s play painted an accurate picture of what happened that fateful week in July, 1967. However, I caught the most glaring fictional reference: Sister and brother Chelle and Lank lived on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount, but back then only storefronts, churches, and apartment buildings — not single family homes — were on that intersection.
I remember seeing the smoke from the burning buildings, like Mike’s grocery store around the corner from our home.
I remember the four year-old girl — the youngest of the 43 deaths — who was shot in her second-floor bedroom by a nervous National Guardsman who mistook the flash of a burned out light bulb for a sniper. He killed her on site. She lived just three blocks away from me.
I also can’t forget seeing the soldiers marching two-by-two down my street, enforcing the martial law that was called by George W. Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), state governor at the time, or the army helicopters called in by President Lyndon Johnson flying overhead virtually non-stop for at least four days.
Wikipedia called it “the 12th Street riot,” while others called it a race riot, as 33 of the 43 persons who died were Black. The event was sparked by a police raid of a popular gathering spot around 4 am on 12th Street July 23, 1967. The final totals: 43 deaths, 1,189 injured, over 7,000 arrested, and thousands of dollars in property damage and destroyed businesses. Many of us who survived it called it a city forever changed.
Attendees and cast members that the MSR spoke to reflected on the parallels between Detroit ’67 and present-day events. “We’re doing a play in 1967 and we are still talking about these things today,” said James T. Alfred (Sly) on the poor police-community relations that are present in many cities.
“My character was such a dreamer,” said Darius Dotch of his Lank character, who recited a memorable line on how Detroit could be a Mecca. “It makes me so sad to see how Detroit is now,” he said.
Sydjea Green of Minneapolis noted that the conditions of Detroit in 1967 are not too much different from today. “I think that was a major point. It was very, very interesting,” she said. “Not much have changed.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org