50 Years After Detroit Riots, Play Questions If Times Have Changed

Feb 2, 2017

Janai Travis as 'Bunny' in Detroit '67
Credit Tanisha Pyron Photography

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots in Detroit - considered to be the largest civil disturbance in the United States of the 20th century. Over five days, people took to the streets protesting police brutality against African Americans and segregation. 


According to the Detroit Historical Society, the riots led to more than seven thousand arrests and 43 deaths. While some of the protests were peaceful, there were also break-ins and people burning buildings.

“People had it, they were up to their limit, and then the response of the government was also so dramatic. To bring in the National Guard. I mean you think about some of the riots that we’re having nowadays. But you also think about the way that weapons are dispersed, the way society is as far as drug uses - it wasn’t like that in 67.," says Janai Travis of Face Off Theatre Company. 

Next week the company will perform a play about the riots called Detroit 67 by Dominique Morisseau. Performances take place February 9th through February 12th at the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo.

The riots are thought to have started after police raided an illegal bar and the crowd that witnessed it became angry. The whole play takes place in such a bar owned by brother and sister duo Lank and Chelle.

Travis says people are drinking and having a good time while chaos is going on outside:

“Old worn couch and there’s a bar and a there’s little bit of liquor, but it’s also like bring your own bottle style type basement vibe. There’s decorations, there’s love. But there’s also us being underground - because it’s the basement - and also being close to the ground.”

People at the bar are tuned in to what’s going on with the riots and talk more freely about it then they would outside. But that sense of security gets shaken when Lank brings in a white girl badly beaten from the riots. Lank’s sister Chelle worries that helping the girl could get them in trouble. Marissa Harrington plays Chelle. She says this isn’t the only time Chelle and Lank don’t see eye-to-eye:

“Dreaming is scary, dreaming is risky. Wanting more for yourself outside this community is scary and you may get the door shut in your face a thousand times, so let’s be safe. Let’s do what we know, let’s stick to that. And then you have the new way of thinking that’s no, I can do what I want to do. I can be what I want to be. Why do I have limits to myself? Why do I have limits to my skin? Why do I have limits because I come from this neighborhood? What happens is you have these two schools of thought from the brother and sister bumping heads through the entire show.”

Harrington says the sounds the playwright added into the play provide a contrast between the party inside and the mayhem outside. The play is filled with music to reflect the height of Motown in Detroit. 

“In addition to that, we have the sounds of tanks interwoven into the play in our conversation. So one person is talking to another and all of a sudden you hear a tank roll by. And they stop and listen and then they keep on…they continue their conversation,” says Harrington.

Dominique Morisseau wrote the play four years ago - before the infamous police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Harrington says the lessons from the ‘67 riots are just as relevant now as they were then.

“We have to be honest and say that these issues have been happening for years. You know this play takes place in 1967 and we’re talking about some of the same issues," she says.

Face Off Theatre will perform Detroit 67 Thursday through Sunday of next week at the Epic Center in Kalamazoo.