When the white cast in The Big Chill (1983) reminisces about their shared past, a Motown song invariably cues up on the soundtrack. Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, et al., shimmy and shake to hits by Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. But when Dominique Morisseau’s characters play Motown songs in Detroit ’67 (through Oct. 7, at Aurora Theatre), the playwright is artfully reclaiming the music from that kind of cultural appropriation. Morisseau isn’t suggesting that white people can’t enjoy Motown songs. But by placing those familiar songs on one Black family’s record player in Detroit, she demonstrates how and why the music resonates so profoundly with them.
As Chelle, Halili Knox anchors the play the way that she did in a recent production of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue. Her voice is maternal and mellifluous, yet always carrying an edge of justifiable anxiety. The widowed Chelle is maternal in practice — her son is away at college — and by default. She and her younger brother Lank (Rafael Jordan) live together in the house they inherited from their parents. Since their parents died, Chelle is a den mother who looks after Lank and a couple of their friends Bunny (Akilah A. Walker, who is supremely confident and funny) and Sly (Myers Clark).
Their house is a place for casual gatherings during the day and, on certain nights, an after-hours club for other Blacks in the neighborhood who want to avoid late night run-ins with the police. Chelle and Lank earn extra money from selling drinks at the dance parties they host. Unlike his father, Lank doesn’t want to work in the auto industry. He wants to invest his and Chelle’s inheritance in a bar he wants to buy with Sly as a partner. Initially, this conflict looks like Morisseau’s main intention would be to echo the “dreams deferred” theme in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (which debuted on Broadway in 1959). While this Black family’s financial insecurities in an oppressive, white America are addressed, it’s not the sole dramatic crux of Detroit ’67.
One night while Lank and Sly are out, they find a white woman on the side of the road. Caroline (Emily Radosevich) is drunk, bloodied and bruised. She passes out before they can ask her where she lives so they decide to bring her back to the house. When Caroline wakes up the next day, she remembers what happened and is afraid to leave or go back to her own apartment. Without telling Chelle and Lank the details, that someone’s after her, she pleads with them to let her stay until she recovers. Sensing this young woman’s isolation, Chelle reluctantly agrees to let Caroline stay in the basement. And since she left her purse and all of her belongings behind, Chelle even agrees to pay Caroline if she’ll help out at the dance parties. Caroline happily agrees.
At first, Caroline seems to be a good match for their underground business. Having had experience before as a cocktail waitress, she knows how to work a room. Bunny jokes about what a draw it is for a white woman to be working for a Black family. The problems begin when the police start raiding after-hours dance parties in other Black homes nearby. As Morisseau frames it, this conflict, between the white police department and the Black residents, led to what is alternately called the 1967 Detroit Rebellion or the 12th Street riot. For several days, businesses and homes burned down and thousands were injured and arrested. Detroit ’67 conveys the conflagration as dramatically as last year’s documentary Whose Streets? recounted the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. Like the documentarians, the playwright replaces impersonal headlines about riots with the story of one family who experienced the violence and tragedy firsthand.
While Caroline may also find comfort in the same Motown songs, Chelle reminds her that as a white woman she can pick up and restart her life again anywhere she chooses. The choices open to Chelle and her extended family are limited by the color of their skin. Songs by Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and The Four Tops punctuate the emotions that run high between Chelle, Lank, Bunny and Sly. In one sweet moment, Chelle and Sly share a slow dance together as “Reach Out I’ll Be There” plays in the background. It temporarily assuages the tensions between them and the white world that works hard at deferring their dreams.
Detroit ’67, through Oct. 7, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.