Meet the Playwright: Dominique Morisseau

Dominique Morisseau writes plays that carry “pieces and shreds and glimpses of people who have raised [her], who she loves and cares for fiercely,” as her frequent collaborator, director Kamilah Forbes, explains. These pieces of real life, knit together with imagination and fierce love of these people–as well as a desire to carve a space for their stories on the American stage—have defined Morisseau’s writing thus far.

Morisseau grew up in the College Park neighborhood of Detroit, which she calls “a pretty affluent working-class community” where now she sees “houses boarded up.” The people, speech, rhythms, and stories she encountered there—and the turns those lives have taken—form the bedrock of her work. As a child and teenager, she acted in plays and musicals and danced with the Detroit City Dance Company. She studied acting at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor where she was inspired, or forced, to write her first play. She found that the theatre department “did not do a lot of nontraditional casting,” and as an African-American woman, she struggled to find roles. Inspired by poet/playwright Ntozake Shange, she decided to write her own play: The Blackness Blues—Time to Change the Tune (A Sister's Story).

Originally written for three roles, she ultimately expanded the play to a cast of twenty to meet the interest from black women who wanted to participate–interest that extended beyond the theatre department.

After graduating from college, Morisseau moved to New York to pursue dancing and wrote performance poetry on the side. Eventually, she found herself pushing her poetry to win rent money instead of writing for the art itself. So she switched to playwriting, joining the Creative Arts Team at City College and the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. It was at the Public Theater where she had the idea for the Detroit Project. The Detroit Project is made up of three plays: Detroit ’67 (2013) (winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama), Paradise Blue (2015), and most recently, Skeleton Crew (2016).

Before the Detroit Project came to fruition, her 2011 play Follow Me to Nellie’s premiered at Premiere Stages in Union, NJ. It explores African-American women’s experiences with segregation in a 1955 Mississippi brothel. Like much of her other work, Morisseau was inspired by her family to write—in this case, by an aunt who ran a brothel for sixty years. This early play establishes what Morisseau does so well throughout her career: she writes with an awareness of the people at the center of the social and political issues of her plays. The characters–their dreams, desires, and convictions—are the stories’ driving forces.

While she was working on the Detroit Project, Sunset Baby premiered at the Labyrinth Theatre Company in 2013. It is a three-character show set in the present day about a father and daughter reentering each other’s lives: Nina, a tough and unforgiving drug dealer; her boyfriend Damon; and her father Kenyatta, the former leader of a black power movement. The play solidified Morisseau’s ability to weave the past and present into a vibrant whole, and her firecracker language. The New York Times praised the piece for its “talk that’s not only dynamic; it’s also dynamite, and it explodes when you least expect it.”

Morisseau’s produced one-acts include Third Grade, Black at Michigan, and love.lies.liberation. She has received the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberg Award for Playwriting, and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. Her newest play Pipeline premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater in June 2017. It follows Omari, an African-American teenager who attends private school in upstate New York. As an educator who has personal ties to both public and private schools, Morisseau is acutely connected to the problems in education. Pipeline examines cultural bias in private schools as well as lack of individualization in teaching or awareness of the students’ emotional well-being.

Morisseau’s dialogue is rich with explosive yet poetic dialects. TheatreMania describes the rhythmical voice of her characters in Skeleton Crew: “they sing with the vernacular of their community.” She has said that “Everyone needs to see themselves. We have to make space.” But for Morisseau, diverse representation extends beyond the number of people of color on stage to the way audience members of color are received at the theatre.

In a recent American Theatre article, Morisseau relates the condescension she has encountered with white patrons uncomfortable with the ways she engaged with a performance. As a writer who describes herself as “an artist whose work…welcome[s] call and response from the audience,” Morriseau seeks out a vibrant theatre culture, one with space for recognition and exchange. As she puts it, in her theatre “you are welcome to come as you are…hoot and holler or sit quietly in reverence. Worship and engage however you do.” Morisseau’s theatre experience is a deeply personal one–one that she believes everyone should have, be it in how they respond to the performance or how the stories and people are represented on stage.

Julia Maier