The Detroit riot of 1967 started in the wee hours of July 23rd, when police launched what was supposed to be a routine raid on an after-hours club, or "blind pig." Expecting an ordinary late night crowd, they stumbled onto an 82 person party given in honor of two returning Vietnam vets. Rather than back off, the police attempted to arrest the entire group, setting off a five day riot that left forty-three dead.
Yesterday, the Public Theater started previews for Detroit '67, a new play by Dominique Morisseau that begins during the run-up to the riot. A Public Lab production, Detroit '67 runs through March 17 before zipping uptown to the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where it will run March 19 to April 14. Set in one of Detroit's blind pigs, it offers political drama by way of family comedy, backed up by the kind of lush Motown soundtrack one would expect from after-hours Detroit. This morning, Astor Place Riot spoke to director Kwame Kwei-Armah, an Englishman who makes his home in Maryland, where he is the artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage.
What appeals to you about this play?
From page one, I was laughing my head off. By about page four, I wrote a note, "Please don't let this play be bad. I love this." Some plays do that—you read the first half and it's great, and then it all collapses. So first and foremost, the thing that attracted me was the wonderfulness of the script. Without that, there's nothing.
This play asks about why, in Detroit in '67, people reacted the way they did. Why was there this automatic combustion? But more importantly, it is a brother and sister play. One is a dreamer, and the other is a pragmatist, and the play beautifully explores how those tools both hinder or perpetuate one's life.
And it's got music! Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson—this brother and sister have quite the 8-track collection.
Correct! Oh my God. The truth is that we did a couple of workshops and readings of the play before we went into production, and I never used the music, because I didn't want any of us to think that somehow the music can save us. The music is the icing, but the play does 99.9—no, the play does 100% of its own work. I don't want people leaving the theater saying that the music was wonderful. They walked in knowing that the music was wonderful. They need to leave talking about the play that just punched them in the stomach.
And this is going up around the same time as Motown: The Musical.
Yes! It is, isn't it? And the funny thing is, we share a costume designer.
I saw that you were made an OBE this year. Tell me a little about that, for Americans who might not be familiar with the honor.
Basically, it's the Queen's jubilee honors. Twice a year, the Queen invests and gives honor to people across Britain whose work—it's like your freedom medal, that the President gives. It's not just artists—it's a bit difficult to describe. It's the one they give you before you go to to Sir or Lord, if you continue to be a good boy. At Center Stage, we call it Knight Light.
How did it feel?
Magnificent. It's a tremendous honor. In fact, the day that it was announced in the media, I didn't say anything about it, and I got maybe five hundred hits on Facebook. It made me cry three times. The outpouring of love that I received—everyone should receive that in their lifetime, and not just at their funeral.
Why did Oskar and Mandy think you were right for this?
In Dominique and I's first meeting together, she asked the same question. I threw it back to her, asking, "Are you actually saying, 'Negro, what the hell does your British ass know about Detroit?'" And she laughed at that.
I think the reason is that, as a playwright, I had written a similar play. It's not similar in its dialogue, in its story, in anything that happens in it, but it is similar in theme. Oskar's brilliance is that he said, "I think you know where Detroit '67 is."
Oskar Eustis knows how to put people together.
And what a beautiful combination! I have had the time of my life. We really have developed the play over the course of the year. One of the great things about Dominique—not only is she a wonderful writer, but she's a wonderful rewriter.
Forgive me for repeating myself, but I've had the time of my life. I'm a man of my theater. The Public does ten shows a year. I do seven. So it's not like I don't know what it takes, but I tell you, god the Public is run well. They know how to look after a writer, they know how to look after a director, they know how to look after a play. I've learned a lot, watching them, about how to run my own company.
Anything in particular?
New play development. How one invests in new plays. How one nurtures writers through the process. How one communicates. It's small things, but they made me go, "Uh-huh." Clarity of leadership, and clarity of communication about aims and objectives.
I'm seeing masters at work.