The sounds of guns and tanks supply a gripping soundtrack for “Detroit ’67.” So do the Motown songs that suffuse Dominique Morisseau’s drama, which opened Thursday to launch the Aurora Theatre Company’s 2018-19 season.
Set during the 1967 riots that tore the city apart, killing scores of people and burning hundreds of Detroit structures, the play introduces African-American sister and brother Chelle and Lank, who have recently inherited their parents’ home and are about to open the basement as an after-hours dance club.
The modest room is still decorated with their childhood paintings and their father’s symbols of black pride, and with the addition of festive colored lights and a bar, all they need is music. If they disagree on how to play it — on Chelle’s funky turntable, or Lank’s newly purchased 8-track player — the songs themselves, by the Temptations, Miracles, Mary Wells and Stevie Wonder, among others, fill the space with vibrant, soulful sound.
Outside, the cops are cracking down, and men are returning from Vietnam shattered, but enterprising Lank believes that “Detroit could be some kind of Mecca.” Along with his friend Sly, he plans to pour the rest of the family inheritance into a neighborhood bar; Chelle, who has a son to support, insists they save what’s left.
And when Lank finds a battered, unconscious white woman in the street and brings her home, things begin to fall apart. At first, Chelle agrees to let Caroline help out in the bar. But it’s clear that Lank is attracted to Caroline — an attraction that lifts his spirit, yet fills Chelle with fear and dread.
As Morisseau, who wrote the book for the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud,” ratchets up the tension, “Detroit” shows how good citizens became victims of violence simply because of the color of their skin (many who died in the riots were shot by police and National Guardsmen.) The soundtrack illuminates the significance of Motown’s music, not merely as entertainment, but as expressions of hope and resilience.
Director Darryl V. Jones delivers a heightened staging. Richard Olmsted’s compact set, Kitty Muntzel’s brilliant 1960s costumes, Jeff Rowlings’ lighting, and Cliff Caruthers’ sound make effective contributions. Projections above the stage show black and white footage of Detroit under siege.
What’s surprising about “Detroit ‘67” is how much humor runs through it. Yet Morisseau invests the characters with depth and feeling. Akilah A. Walker, who comes on strong as Chelle’s fun-loving friend Bunny, gradually unpacks an unexpected layer of empathy. Myers Clark gives Sly a goofy, loose-limbed edge, but his finest moments come in a revealing second half pas de deux with Chelle.
You feel the tragedy coming, and when it does, it’s painful. But the unforgettable moments in “Detroit ‘67” are the ones where the characters finally connect. Rafael Jordan is an appealing, optimistic Lank, and his scenes with Emily Radosevich’s Caroline are magnetic. Still, the play belongs to Halili Knox, who plays Chelle with a potent mix of anger, wariness, grief and longing.
With only five characters in the cast, it’s remarkable what these actors achieve. At times, they seem to speak for all of Detroit in the 60s — and, perhaps, for our time, today.
Where: Aurora Theatre Co., 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 30
Tickets: $35 to $70
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org