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Review: Fresno State’s ‘Detroit ’67’ features strong performances from Oputa, Jones

Two performances remain of Fresno State’s virtual production of “Detroit ’67.” It streams at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Tickets are $15.)

Pictured above: Nwachukwu Oputa, left, Vernon Lee Jones III and TJ Taylor in ‘Detroit ’67.’ Photo: Fresno State.

Director Thomas-Whit Ellis originally planned the production as a regular (live) offering last season, but then the pandemic happened. The cast rehearsed using social-distancing guidelines, including the wearing of masks. Actors took off those masks for filming but remain physically distanced from each other. At one point when Dominique Morisseau’s script specifically calls for human contact, the camera has to cut away before it occurs. The situation isn’t ideal for a tight, intimate drama such as this, but I have to applaud Ellis and the theater department for figuring out ways to keep pedagogical opportunities for theater students available during the pandemic.

THEATER REVIEW

Set during the time of the infamous Detroit riots of 1967, the play roots us in the basement of an economically distressed Black neighborhood of the city. There we meet Chelle (Nwachukwu Oputa) and Lank (Vernon Lee Jones III), sister and brother, who as the action opens are discussing what to do with the not insubstantial inheritance left by their mother. Chelle wants to use the money for her college-age son’s education, while Lank would like to invest in a neighborhood bar. This kernel of a conflict begins to grow as a new character enters their lives: Caroline (played by Madeline Nelson), a badly injured white woman found by Lank on the street. She won’t say who hurt her or why. When Caroline suggests crashing at the house for a while to recuperate, the request eventually sparks a second sibling conflict and connects the household — with its safe sanctuary of a basement — with the violence of the outside world.

To me, there are three major currents in the play: the sibling relationship between Chelle and Lank; the potential (and potentially problematic) romantic relationship between Lank and Caroline; and the systemic racism of 1968 (and, for that matter, 2020) encapsulated by the Detroit riots. The Fresno State production is strongest when it comes to the first of the three. Oputa and Jones forge a sensitive, nuanced chemistry on stage, alternating between frustration and tenderness. There is something about this shared sibling experience that resonates in a way beyond the personal: their common points of remembrance mirror the way that shared experiences of racism can bond people together. In one potent moment, Chelle tells Caroline that white and Black people might dream the same way — they might even have the same heart rate when they do — but until the color of their skin doesn’t matter, they will never experience reality in the same way.

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Ellis and his creative team jump through the university’s COVID-19 hoops in admirable ways, but the production feels emotionally detached when it tries to move beyond the Chelle-Lank relationship. Sound (by Regina Harris) and lighting (by Michael Shane Flores) is uneven. Morisseau’s script itself feels on the flabby side, and the family-legacy and Good Samaritan storylines leans toward the derivative.

Still, I am impressed with the historical impact of this piece and the sensitive racial tapestry of ideas that Ellis is able to weave. The material in this case is not best served by the virtual format, but the play still offers some striking reminders that 50 years after the Detroit riots, so much of the world is unchanged.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Jackie Ryle

    I watched this play and was really impressed with how they adapted to the circumstances. I think we all are prepared to see accommodations to the situation and therefore were/are not distracted by, for example, by the distancing. The performances are outstanding and they definitely achieve the context, era and feeling. I liked it a lot! Kudos to Thomas, the cast, and everyone who contributed to this excellent production. Really great adaptation under truly challenging circumstances

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