‘Detroit ’67,’ a connection between past and present America

Vernon Lee Jones III plays Lank in Detroit '67

The second play produced by Fresno State’s theatre department during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Detroit 67’,’” tells audiences a story inherently connected to the racial tension felt in the U.S. today. 

Viewers follow the story of siblings Lank and Chelle and their friends as they navigate through a time plagued with police violence and racial injustice while trying to make ends meet. 

Although the show runs a bit long, 1 hour and 56 minutes total, its message is essential to viewers. It connects America’s history with the present, showing how the lack of understanding between cultures and races leads to a division all too familiar within America’s current climate. 

While the play covers heavy topics such as racial injustice, underemployment and poverty, director Thomas-Whit Ellis pulls from creator Dominique Morisseau’s vision and incorporates themes of friendship and love to lighten its overall tone. 

When watching the performance, audiences can feel Lank and Chelle’s emotions as they struggle to understand each other’s views. 

As Lank, a young Black man, begins to form a relationship with a young white woman he brings to their home, tensions start running high as the Detroit race riots begin to heighten in severity. 

Fresno State student Nwachukwu Oputa encapsulates Chelle in her moving performance throughout the play. 

Each of the characters was unique in their way, bringing to light the fears, joys and tragedies that come along with stepping out of your comfort zone and putting yourself into someone else’s perspective. 

An essential theme in “Detroit ’67’” is the Motown sound, which brings each of the characters together despite their differences in background and ideas. 

The play had to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, and while these precautions were necessary, it did take away the intimacy of the emotional relationships between characters. 

Nevertheless, the actors provided this sense of intimacy through the emotion put into their dialogue, which helped audiences feel and understand the impacts of an interracial relationship in 1967 Detriot. 

Chelle (played by Nwachukwu Oputa) and Lank (played by Vernon Lee Jones III)

The play’s set was considered more traditional than Fresno State’s first production under COVID-19 restrictions “Darkside.” 

It allowed actors to interact face-to-face with one another and create a sense of familiarity with audiences as they sat and talked in Lank and Chelle’s basement. 

This common meeting place begins to feel like home for audiences as they watch the siblings and their friends work through their issues together and overcome the daunting challenges that took place during this time in history. 

Morisseau’s play is an outstanding example of how history repeats itself. 

Whit-Ellis, program coordinator of African Studies at Fresno State, said that “Detroit ’67” shows how for America to become a place equal and fair to all, there must be a basic understanding of the fundamentals of what makes a person who they are. Exhibiting that race and culture should not be discriminated against simply because someone is different from others. 

As stated in a quote pulled from Whit-Ellis in the “Detroit 67’” program, this story allows “many a view into black culture and others a chance to reconnect to their own stories and values.” 

The play is raw, real and vibrant.

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