"Detroit Blues" premieres at DC Black Theatre Festival
The D.C. Black Theatre Festival is a 10-day long series of workshops, presentations and performances all related to the African experience. From June 20th-29th, artists, writers and producers gather in Mt. Vernon to produce original work. “Detroit Blues” is one of the pieces performed at the festival.
It’s the summer of 1967 and all hell is breaking loose in Detroit. “Detroit Blues” takes place on the porch of the Childs’ home; a black family dwelling within the city while it becomes consumed by pain and hatred. The story of the Childs is one of struggle in the workplace, discrimination at school and among peers and lack of opportunity to heal from great tragedy because of social oppression.
This play offers a new perspective on the Detriot race riots, starting from the beginning of the riots and ending a year later. The Childs are an average family, not suffering from a lack of money or a lack of talent, but their lives contrast sharply with the white characters in their neighborhood. These differences can be seen in the daughter’s competition with her white classmates and her parents’ competition with white socialites.
“Detroit Blues” reflects a family realistically during the Civil Rights era, but realistic does not always mean entertaining. The actors painted a descriptive picture of the race conflicts arising in Detroit through voice inflictions and storytelling. The hardships of the time are recognizable through conversation and phone calls, yet the audience remained slightly disconnected from it all because of the lack of action and stimulation.
The only action within the play is sudden and short, with almost two hours of straight dialogue struck silent with one gunshot. The sound of the gun that echoed through the theater was so sudden and the darkness that followed immediately so eerie that the only sound afterwards was the sobbing of a child in the audience. The ending would have been brilliant if not for the poor buildup and the lack of explanation for the sudden death of a very important character. The audience seemed to leave that last scene with more confusion than shock. The action of the characters in the play up to this point had been free of direct involvement with the riots themselves, so it was hard to accept such a turn of events so quickly.
The setting of “Detroit Blues” is nostalgic with a tint of sadness, yet the characters tried with every bit of backbone they had to turn the stage into a symbol of change. Using the typical rebellious and hopeful teenagers—contrasted with tired, broken-down adults—this play is predictable and slow to watch.
Nonetheless, the passion of those who participated in the final product is so evident in its lines and performances; the play itself can still be called a success. The story of a broken family living in broken times may be predictable, but it also leaves an audience thinking deeply about the message of racial discrimination. Conversation may not make for the most interesting play, but it definitely reflects the method of change Detroit needed in the late sixties.