Anyone who has driven around downtown Detroit may find themselves wondering why stately brick mansions lay eerily dormant. They may also want to know why a gleaming bunker like the downtown Renaissance Center, a complex of inter-connected skyscrapers built in 1971, seems to be built to insulate rather than integrate.
It's no stretch to connect the city's current urban construct to the riots of 1967. Other factors have played into the racially powered flight to the suburbs that rendered derelict much of Detroit-proper (with some reversals in recent years), but the riots represent a deadly, defining moment in its trajectory.
So when I learned Pure Theatre was launching its fall season with "Last Rites," a show set during the Detroit riots, I quickly began to consider the dynamics in our own city, as urban pressures and socioeconomic schisms continue to play out in volatile ways.
Written and directed by Pure ensemble member Randy Neale, "Last Rites" shoves us feet first into that perilous inferno, by way of three characters who are holed up in a gas station convenience store. There, they duck from the bullets raining down outside and face down a deep-seated distrust of one another inside, with their very survival in the balance.
They are a white man (Laurens Wilson), who operates the store; an African American grandmother (Joy Vandervort-Cobb), en route home from her cleaning job; and a younger black man (Michael Smallwood), whose future has already been all-but-destroyed by his youthful indiscretions.
At Pure, the three are weighted equally by strong performances. Wilson's guarded reluctance gives way to an under-running ire; Vandervort-Cobb pivots from anxious grandmother to the work's moral core; and Smallwood shifts between nervous edge and unhinged rage.
Reeling from the gunfire and arson blazing through the night, the three contend with the ever-mounting body count outside and the escalating tensions within. Empathy and self-protection are in a death-match, too, as the play homes in on the divergent backgrounds and prejudices fueling the savage streets.
Neale's supreme craftsmanship allows for this, while providing prime dramatic terrain for all three actors. That being said, there is some waywardness in the latter part of the first act that deflates intended tension. However, a taut second act got things cracking again.
Oh, yes, and there's that gun, which is introduced early on. Any fan of playwright Anton Chekhov would readily identify its presence as a really big problem for those unsuspecting three. And, speaking of dramatic precedents, it's impossible for me not to pin three trapped people to the work of existential poster boy Jean-Paul Sartre, whose famous "No Exit" sticks people in a dingy room to sidle up and square off, pushing buttons and salting wounds for all eternity.
All this plays out in a similarly dingy, smallish store stocked with stale bread and Coca-Colas. It's the work of scenic and lighting designer/technical director Richard Heffner, who has lovingly stripped the set of any love, griming the walls and filling the shelves with precision randomness. Above them, a projector shares actual riot footage, which is punctuated by day-to-day narratives of the riot, including the number of deaths, courtesy of Craig Trow.
Also of note, production-wise, is Miles Boinest's sound design, which samples voice over reports and narration from the embattled neighborhood, as well as a persistent fusillade from beyond the store's walls.
The riots are now long history, but the residue from those smoking guns lingers still. More than a half-century later, the racial dynamics play on. But for a poet or playwright penning a cautionary tale, there often seems to be no exit.