“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said. The new local production of Detroit ’67 has a story set to the backdrop of the Detroit riots of the summer of 1967 and examines the too-often-unheard issues of police brutality, segregation, racism, and more.

“When I look at plays to direct, I do it for a very specific reason. I wanted to direct a play that was written by an African-American female – that was very important to me,” says Detroit ’67 Director Dana Pellebon. “I wanted to direct a play that specifically spoke to my community. The play itself encompasses a lot of themes that are important to me – things like police brutality, themes like respectability politics, themes surrounding the black woman’s place in the community and the black woman’s place with a black male.”

Dana Pellebon
Dana Pellebon

The Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre production of Detroit ’67, a riveting play by Dominique Morisseau, will open at the Bartell Theatre in downtown Madison on Friday night and will undoubtedly raise some questions and start some conversations with audience members. Real events inspired many themes of Detroit ’67 that revolved around the five days of rioting in Detroit in late July of 1967 that resulted in 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

“What I found striking when I was first reading this play was how things haven’t changed and how we are dealing with the same issues today,” Pellebon tells Madison365 in an interview at 100State. “Detroit in 1967 is the same as Milwaukee in 2016. The police brutality in 1967 is the same in 2016; we just now have cameras and the media coverage is different. But the realities have not changed in all of these years.

Chelle (Nyajai Ellison) listening to music and grieving (Photo by Jonathan Popp)
Chelle (Nyajai Ellison) listening to music and grieving
(Photo by Jonathan Popp)

“I believe that history is doomed to repeat itself unless we talk about all of that history and talk about what happened in that history and why it happened,” she adds. “We’ve never addressed the civil rights movement as a whole and we’ve never studied it. We’ve never taken it outside of a week’s or a month’s worth of history. It’s about understanding that black history is American history and that there is no separation. And it’s making sure that we are going back and telling our history in a way that is correct and being able to say, ‘Here is our story. Here is our perspective.’”

It was also important to Pellebon to bring some diversity to Madison community theater. “It is not enough to cast me as a black actor in your play, it is important to tell my story, too, because my story is as equally and validly as important as every other story — as August: Osage County, as Neil Simon, as Shakespeare,” she says. “It is incumbent upon the artistic community to have a fully fleshed out view of art. I am enormously grateful for this opportunity.”

Pellebon, who will also be directing “The Whipping Man” in March which is set during the Civil War and examines slavery from a Jewish perspective, has been working on Detroit ’67 for about a year. Rehearsals started in September for Detroit ’67, which has won many awards including the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

Chelle(Nyajai Ellison) and Lank (Jalen Thomas) (Photo by Jonathan Popp)
Chelle(Nyajai Ellison) and Lank (Jalen Thomas)
(Photo by Jonathan Popp)

“This takes place before Martin Luther King Jr. died [in April of 1968]. Back in those times, there were not that many establishments that African Americans could go into, especially night clubs and bars and places to get a drink, so they had after-hour clubs,” Pellebon explained. “People would come in after their shift and have drinks and would be able to dance and do things you should be able to do in your community.

“The Detroit Police, like many cops at that time, were corrupt and didn’t like the fact that there were black folks gathering without their permission and that they weren’t getting a cut of what was happening in these juke joints,” she adds. “Their story was that there was prostitution and drugs. OK. But, not in every juke joint.”

The police raided a juke joint early morning Sunday, July 23, 1967, that started a riot in Detroit that lasted for days. Police confrontations with patrons and observers on the street evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States.

The play takes place near the epicenter of those events and depicts Chelle and her brother Lank trying to make ends meet by running their own after-hours bar, helped by their two best friends, Bunny and Sly. Shortly before the riots begin, a mysterious woman, Caroline, enters their lives and the siblings clash over much more than the family business.

“The sister [Chelle] is hesitant [to open the bar] because it’s a hustle and she doesn’t want to hustle. In the midst there is a white woman [Caroline] and she appears and there is that tension,” Pellebon says. “Amidst all of this, the riots start and the bar is in trouble. It enhances the question of keeping what you had and being content versus wanting to move forward and being like the white folks and having something more.

“It’s hard to tackle all of the things going on and all of the emotions in an hour and 45 minutes,” Pellebon adds. “A lot of the actors are young and just finding out about things [in history] because, again, these are things that are not taught in schools. There’s a learning curve.”

The young cast for Detroit ’67 includes Nyajai Ellison as Chelle, Marie Justice as Bunny, Carrie Sweet as Caroline, Jalen Thomas as Sly, and Maxton Young-Jones as Lank.

“We had the great benefit of having Dr. Sandra Adell come and talk to our cast members and she lived through those times. She was a single mother with three kids in Detroit at that time,” Pellebon says. “There were tanks going down her street and they had to close their curtains and stay down with the lights off because if they didn’t, police would shoot into the windows.”

Bunny (Marie Justice) tends to Lank (Maxton Young-Jones) (Photo by Jonathan Popp)
Bunny (Marie Justice) tends to Lank (Maxton Young-Jones)
(Photo by Jonathan Popp)

Adell, a literature professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be one of the featured speakers for talkbacks immediately after selected performances of Detroit ’67 for audience members who want to delve more deeply into the issues presented in the play. Adell, the editor of Contemporary Plays by African American Women: Ten Complete Plays (University of Illinois Press, December 2015), will speak after the Saturday, Oct. 29 performance of “Detroit ‘67”

Other talkbacks are scheduled for the following production dates:
◆ Sunday, October 30, 2 p.m., MATINEE – Gloria Ladson-Billings
Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. Ladson-Billings’ work examines successful teachers of African American students and Critical Race Theory applications to education.
◆ Friday, November 4, 8 p.m. — Fred McKissack
McKissack’s background in journalism spans three decades, and includes writing and editing for the Progressive magazine and its media project, and Rethinking Schools. He is currently a writing fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change, and his articles have been featured on ESPN’s The Undefeated, American Prospect, Talk Poverty.com, and Huffington Post.
◆ Saturday, November 5, 8 p.m. – Sabrina Madison
Named one of Madison’s most influential people in greater Madison by In Business Magazine, Madison, affectionately known as “Heymiss Progress” is a socialpreneur, motivational speaker and poet. She’s founder of the Conversation Mixtape, creator of the highly successful Black Women’s Leadership Conference and the equally successful Black Business Expo.
◆ Thursday, November 10, 8 p.m. – Theola Carter
Carter is a well-known actress and activist.

“People are going to want to talk about it and they are going to want to process it. Some of these concepts will be new concepts for people,” Pellebon says of the scheduled talkbacks. “Being able to have somebody to process that with and have some historical background and knowledge I think is fairly important.”

There will be 11 total shows for Detroit ’67 with the opening show taking place Friday, Oct. 28, 8 p.m.

“When we are talking about Detroit in 1967, we are talking about some great music. Motown!,” Pellebon says. “It’s been interesting to watch the young people in the production finding out about new music and where certain music came from and [saying,] ‘Oh, I heard this before!’

Chelle tends to Caroline (Photo by Jonathan Popp)
Chelle tends to Caroline
(Photo by Jonathan Popp)

“The music at that time, when they could, had a message and that was what was important,” she adds. “People get ready, there’s a train a-coming … when they say that, that meant something. That was the beauty of Motown.”

Like the powerful music of the time, Pellebon hopes that her play moves people, too.

“I want people to be entertained. I want them to think. I want them to be like, ‘Oh, what was that all about? Let me find out more,'” she says. “If I can spur even one person to go and open up a history book and find out in-depth what the issues were … then we will have been successful. Sometimes art can reflect that education that we don’t get anywhere else.”

“Detroit ’67” will be playing at the Bartell Theatre Evjue Stage from Oct 28-Nov 12 on 113 E. Mifflin St. For more information, click here.