It’s 1967 and in the basement of their childhood home in Detroit, siblings Chelle and Lank are in the process of transforming the space into an after-hours juke joint. But tensions flare as riots explode in their neighborhood and a mysterious stranger appears, threatening to unwind the bond that is holding the family together. Written by playwright Dominique Morisseau, “Detroit ’67” captures a specific historical moment at the crossroads of music, political turmoil, and fiery inner-lives ready to combust. In advance of the play’s premiere on February 26 at New York’s Public Theater, director Kwame Kwei-Armah spoke with ARTINFO’s Craig Hubert about the politics of the work, collaboration, and using music as its own character.
What was your initial interest in “Detroit 67?” What drew you to the project?
First, Mandy Hackett at the Public asked me if I would read the script. Within the first pages – I actually wrote this, it’s there on my original script – I wrote, please, don’t let this be bad. Because the first five scenes were so funny and I really wanted this to remain good. That’s really what it was – the play, the play, the play. I found the play to be beautiful in what it wanted and what it attempted to ask its characters.
The play is set in Detroit in a very specific time, the middle of the riots in 1967. After you agreed to direct, did you do background research?
One of the first questions that Dominique asked me was, what do you know about Detroit? Her question was a deeper question: What do you know about the people? To that, my answer was I know everything I need to know because you just told me it. First, it’s getting into the heart of who these characters are. I did no research at all.
Is the political element important to you?
The politics are secondary to the people and the story of a brother and a sister and how each one negotiates their life in Detroit. I find myself fascinated by the internal politics – I grew up in a Britain that was filled with riots, that is my era. So the moment I started to read a play that was set amongst the riots I felt a natural affinity to the characters and how they respond to the riots and the circumstances and all the things that happen around you. I know that from my own personal history. I found that not only very attractive, but compellingly written.
What was the collaborative process like with Dominique?
First of all, I should say it’s been wonderful. It’s much easier for a writer to answer that question rather than a director. But we’ve had a wonderful relationship. One of my plays, “Elmina’s Kitchen” – although not set in Detroit and not alike in any way – but thematically they are both exploring the same themes. Dominique is in a place I was 10 years ago, I think, so in many respects the play explores the stuff I like. So it was about asking Dominique profound questions about the play and, along with the dramaturgical team, having a relationship where I could say, Can we possibly look at this? Dominique is a wonderful writer – but she’s an even better rewriter. Often when people rewrite their rewrites can become mechanical, and she takes it and comes back with something completely her own which addresses the other hand. And I’ll say this: As a playwright myself, the very last thing one wants to give the impression of is that I’m trying to get you to write the play that I’d write. So I had to be mindful of that, Dominique had to be mindful of that, and in our discussions about the play the play had to fulfill its own potential.
As a playwright and a director, do you approach a play differently if you’re working with someone else’s material?
It’s different, certainly for me. Up until we went into rehearsals two weeks ago my major contribution to the piece was not necessarily directorial, it was dramaturgical. It was: How does this function? How do we boil this down to its essence? So we know where each actor is going, what each actor’s arc is. When I go in as a director, my major thing is to serve a playwright. This is my fourth play in about four months, so it’s been an active question for me. How do I serve the playwright? How do I give us what the playwright wants? Yesterday, Dominique walked onto the set for the first time – she looked at it and smiled for about three hours. I was really pleased because I knew we had given the playwright what she wanted. It’s about giving the playwright what she wants and the audience what they need. That’s the million-dollar question for me.
Music, especially the music coming out of Motown Records, is an important element of the play. What role do you see the music occupying within the story?
That’s an interesting question for me. The thing that I said to Dominique is that I really don’t want people to leave the play going, oh, the music was great – they walked into the play already knowing that the music is great. Consequently then, the music has to be a character – not a dominant character. It must be equal to all of the other players on the stage. And so the difficult part, at this stage, is finding how much of the music to share, when is the music in the scene and when is it out of the scene, how long do we play these songs for, what songs get played all the way through? It’s a character, but my aim is not to make it a dominant one, because it so easily can be dominant. It can also so easily be an underscorer, and I don’t want it to be an underscorer either.
What’s the most exciting thing for you going in to opening night?
In truth, the thing I look forward to most, at this point, and it’s always with a little bit of fear and trepidation, is an audience coming to be the final character. We’ve done a lot of really good work in rehearsal, but finally, the real judge is an audience. The real director is an audience – they’ll tell us when to stop and what to do more or what to do better or less of. So I think what I’m looking forward to most is seeing how an audience interacts because so far it’s just been the family that’s creating it and we’re always going to be more sympathetic towards our baby than strangers.
"Detroit '67" is a Public Lab production and a co-production with the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where the show will run from March 23 through April 14, following its run at the Public Theater.
All tickets are only $15.