Detroit '67 Synopsis
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In July 1967 Detroit, Chelle, sets up her basement for a party she’s having the upcoming weekend. Her close friend Bunny arrives in the basement and starts helping with set up. They discuss the new inheritance Chelle and her younger brother Lank came into when their father recently died. Chelle, a widow, looks forward to using the money to pay for her son Julius to attend the Tuskegee Institute. At the same time, now that she and Lank are settled into a new living arrangement in their parents’ house, Chelle plans to re-start the underground parties she used to run in her basement to bring in extra money until her son’s tuition is fully paid.
Lank and his best friend Sly enter the basement with their purchases for the party. Chelle fumes when they reveal how they ignored her shopping list to buy an 8-track tape player and new 8-track tapes instead of the supplies she needed. Sly and Lank push her further, propositioning Chelle to use the inheritance to buy a nearby bar that is being sold. She refuses, noting the 8-track player must be for that new bar. Lank claims that a stake in the community would stop the cops from pushing them around, but Chelle does not care. Quietly, Lank confirms with Sly that he still wants in on the business deal, and plans to bring Chelle around later. Bunny and Sly exit the basement, leaving Lank alone to continue trying to persuade Chelle. Lank argues that he wants to stop hustling— earning a living through unlawful means—while Chelle maintains that the money’s stability is more important. Their discussion ends with no decision reached.
Later that night, Sly and Lank furtively carry into the house an unconscious white woman with marks of physical violence on her face and body. They argue about whether they’ve made the right decision in picking her up; they could be in great danger if they are caught with a white woman. Chelle, who has been inadvertently woken up by Lank and Sly, enters, sees the woman and demands an explanation. Lank and Sly say that they saw her stumbling along Chicago Boulevard. When they asked if she needed a ride, she said, “Get me outta here,” and then passed out in the car. Aware of the danger she, Lank, and Sly are in with the woman in their house, but with no better plan, Chelle bandages the sleeping stranger and leaves her in the basement on the couch.
In the morning, the woman wakes up and inspects her face and her surroundings. Lank comes down the stairs to bring her breakfast and find out what happened to her the night before. He asks her personal questions, but she gives him no information about who she is. Chelle enters the basement and offers to call the woman’s family. The woman refuses with stuttering and pauses. She says she has no money and wants to work for her keep at their house, as long as it is safe. Lank proposes that she help Chelle with the bar and the party, and, against Chelle’s better judgment, she caves and allows the woman to stay for a week and work for them. They learn her name is Caroline. When Caroline goes upstairs to find some clean clothes, Chelle warns Lank not to touch her—adding, “keep your friendliness to yourself.”
Later that evening, Chelle, Lank and Bunny continue to prepare for the party, when a well-dressed Sly with a bottle of liquor arrives to help. Caroline brings the punch down to the basement and then excuses herself to finish more chores upstairs. Lank and Sly hang up a velvet painting of two naked black women; Chelle deems it tacky, while Bunny considers it sexy. Lank puts a choice song on the 8-track, which prompts Sly to remember how they danced with women when they were younger. Sly entices Chelle to dance, while Lank and Bunny enjoy a much more “down n’ dirty” dance next to them. Caroline quietly enters and watches them dance—especially Lank—but then disrupts the scene with a giggle. Chelle pulls away from Sly and gets back to business ordering the others in the completion of the party preparation. Privately, Sly tells Lank they have to move quickly and put down a deposit on the bar. Lank says he’s in, but he still has to figure out how to tell Chelle.
The day after the party, Chelle counts the money made and gives Caroline her cut, happy with how Caroline worked the crowd. Chelle leaves to run errands, giving Caroline privacy to play music and dance. Lank walks in and watches her for a while before she notices his presence. Lank and Caroline flirt over their shared musical interests; Caroline enjoys listening to Motown and is surprisingly familiar with Lank's favorite songs. Caroline asks about the series of drawings (a star, a fist, and a black girl’s face) on the basement walls and Lank explains the family member artist and personal meaning behind each. After learning a little about Caroline’s divorced parents, Lank remembers his father working hard every day of his life at the Ford Motor Company, but admits he wants his own business, something no one can take away from him. Lank asks Caroline who hurt her on the night he picked her up, but she thinks it is best to leave that night in the past. As their conversation becomes more and more personal and intimate, they come very close to kissing, but Chelle enters and breaks up the moment. Caroline awkwardly leaves the basement to fetch ice and Chelle glares disapprovingly at Lank.
That night, Caroline is asleep on the basement sofa when Chelle and Lank burst in. Lank tells Chelle that a neighborhood bar called Duke’s is on fire. When Chelle does not understand why Lank is so riled up as if it is his personal business, Lank reveals he bought the neighboring bar, which they might now lose in the fire. Lank leaves with Chelle furious at him for going against her wishes for their shared inheritance.
The following morning, Chelle hangs clothes on a line to dry in the basement as Bunny walks into the house. Bunny and Chelle update each other on the riots, until Chelle asks Bunny to talk about something else. Bunny asks where Caroline is and then confides in Chelle that a woman from the Red Stallion, a strip club, has gone missing. Bunny also adds that the missing woman used to fool around with an important city cop, which makes both women concerned for their safety. Sly comes in alone and reports that the cops came up to him and Lank poking around their new bar and harassed them. Lank stood up for himself and was arrested; the cops did not believe he owned the place. Chelle and Sly rush to bail Lank out of jail, leaving Bunny to update Caroline on the news. Shaken by the circumstances, Caroline says she has to leave and does.
Later that night, Bunny is asleep on the sofa when Chelle comes back home with Lank who has been assaulted by the police. She takes care of Lank’s bruises and cuts as they argue about the bar. Bunny tells them that Caroline left, and Lank wants to stay up to wait for her to return. Chelle expresses her concerns to Lank that he is falling for a white woman; she does not believe there is any way their relationship could work. After Chelle goes to bed Caroline returns. She sees Lank’s bruises and confesses her romantic involvement with a cop at the Red Stallion, where she waitressed, and shares that on the night Lank found her, the cop had beaten her badly and she had run away. Caroline admits her plans to leave Detroit due to the danger her presence in the city poses for both herself and for Lank. They acknowledge the feeling of connection between them and Lank plays Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Everybody Needs Love” for her. Lank requests Caroline close her eyes and listen to the lyrics, and they sit with the music, listening without a word.
Chelle is cleaning the basement when Sly comes in looking for Lank to go to a meeting at their bar. While waiting for Lank, they discuss the state of the city—people gathering to throw rocks, streets filled with smoke, the mayor sending tanks into the street and calling for the National Guard, Governor Romney requesting thousands of troops to handle the riot. In the midst of their conversation, Sly begins to romance Chelle gradually. Sly remains confident no one in the community will burn down “Sly and Lank’s Feel Good Shack,” which is what they plan to name their bar. Sly sweet talks Chelle away from cleaning and holds her as they dance to The Four Tops. Their deep emotional bond becomes clear. Sly expresses his desire to be with Chelle, but she only smiles in return, without a clear response to his move towards romance. Lank comes in with information about the police lurking around their bar and the men leave for the meeting.
Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.
Later, with the occasional sound of tanks in the background, Chelle and Bunny drink wine together while waiting for Lank and Sly to return from their meeting. Caroline tells them that she is leaving on a train before dawn. When she hears about the cops looking around Lank and Sly’s bar, Caroline becomes worried and admits to Chelle that the cops are probably looking for her. Chelle rages at Caroline for bringing her brother into her mess with the cop she used to see, and tells her that she and Lank will always be different due to the color of their skin. Bunny encourages Caroline to leave early for the train; Caroline complies. Chelle admits to Bunny that the way Lank feels about Caroline makes her feel inadequate. Bunny calms Chelle down saying how much Lank cares about her. Lank walks in completely disoriented and with blood on his shirt, tells them that the cops killed Sly, and collapses.
Days later, in the basement, Chelle drinks coffee and Lank drinks liquor. Chelle shares that Julius has called about coming home because he heard the US Army is entering Detroit. Chelle told him to hold off. Lank asks about Caroline. Chelle tells him that she left town on the train. Lank confesses to Chelle that he felt like there were fewer rules constraining him when he was with Caroline, and that he could be a more honest version of himself. Lank then divulges the truth about Sly’s death: the two were running after the cops they found snooping around their bar. A tank came down the road and Lank stopped, but Sly kept running. The tank shot at Sly who was chasing the cops, and Lank held Sly in his arms while he died. In order to help Lank with his sadness, Chelle attempts to turn on the 8-track player. She says she will support Lank’s dream of owning the bar and they will use it to remember Sly. Lank withdraws to pick up Sly’s sister for the funeral, leaving Chelle to dance alone to The Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” the last song she and Sly danced to before his death.