Playwright Dominique Morisseau showcases Detroit on the world’s top stages
BY LEENA RAO
For Tony Award-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau, work isn’t just a creative outlet, it’s a chance to pay homage to her hometown. Morisseau, whose 2018 play Ain’t Too Proud, about Motown’s own Temptations, was nominated for 12 Tonys, including Best Musical (it snagged the award for Best Choreography), says her inspiration comes from Detroit and its music. “Detroit has raised me and given me my sense of artistry,” she says. “My mission as an artist is to serve and give back to this city.”
This month, Morisseau — who’s also the artistic producer at the Detroit Public Theatre — will see another one of her plays hit Broadway. Skeleton Crew, which depicts workers from a Detroit automotive plant on the brink of foreclosure and stars actress Phylicia Rashad, will debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on Dec. 21.
In 2013, when Morisseau, 43, decided she wanted to write a play about factory workers in Detroit, she started with music. The play was inspired by “The Factory,” a song by late Detroit rapper J Dilla, as well as a tune called “Lost Detroit” created by Morisseau’s husband, musician (and fellow Detroit native) J. Keys. “When I write, I first ask, ‘What is music that inspires the mood and culture of what I’m trying to create?” Morisseau says. “Then I build characters and they get smaller and smaller until it’s just me and them. Then I know who they are and what they want to fight for, and then I can write a play.”
Skeleton Crew focuses on the stories of three auto workers — Faye, Shanita, and Dez — and their worries amid the rumors of their auto plant closing. The play highlights the economic impact of the Great Recession in 2008 alongside the deeply personal impact on the workers and their families. Skeleton Crew is part of a trilogy of plays called The Detroit Projects that span decades and eras while showcasing the rich, powerful stories of Black Detroit. (The other two plays are Detroit ’67, about the 1967 Detroit riots, and Paradise Blue, which focuses on the city’s Black Bottom era in the 1940s.)
Morisseau, who resides in Los Angeles with her 1-year-old son and husband, grew up at Six Mile and Livernois. She discovered her love for literature and storytelling from her mother, a former Highland Park teacher. At Cass Technical High school, Morisseau studied under storied drama teacher Marilyn McCormick, whom she credits for her interest in theater. “Without having Marilyn as an educator, I would have never known I could go to college for acting and theater,” Morisseau says. But that’s just what she did: She studied acting at the University of Michigan, where she began writing plays and thinking about how to incorporate Black history and culture into her work. While there, she produced her first play, around 1999 or 2000, “at a pivotal time for Black students,” she says. “Racial profiling had just become a phrase, and there were protests about removing affirmative action.”
She moved to New York City shortly after the 9/11 attacks and started working for an educational theater company and a social-justice-focused theater. “I just kept writing and auditioning and hustling to participate in every theater festival I could get into,” Morisseau says, adding that she didn’t have one big break but a series of mini breaks. One of these was being accepted into the Emerging Writers program at New York’s Public Theater. “From there it changed the trajectory of my career,” she says, adding she conceived the Detroit Project during her time in the program.
As she became more ingrained in the theater world, Morisseau met Sarah Winkler, then a member of a professional, Off Broadway theater company who was about to move to Detroit for her husband’s job. Winkler saw Detroit ’67, which ran at the Public Theater in 2013, and was “blown away by [Dominique’s] writing,” she recalls. “Seeing the play inspired me to research the 1967 uprising and the causes and the aftermath,” says Winkler, who co-founded the Detroit Public Theatre in 2015 and produced Detroit ’67 in 2017. “It played to sold out audiences and nightly standing ovations,” she adds.
For Morisseau, partnering with a local theater group is paramount. “It’s very important for me for my plays to come home,” she says. “The people that made them need to see them.” She also believes that shows need to be accessible for everyone; to that end, the DPT has secured sponsorships with the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Skillman Foundation that provide local students with free tickets to Morisseau’s plays. “Dominique is a change maker,” says DPT co-founder and producing artistic director Courtney Burkett. “She’s leading the theater industry to transformation by including people who have been historically excluded from leadership and audience.”
“It’s very important for me for my plays to come home,” she says. “The people that made them need to see them.”
And change is indeed coming. In 2019, Broadway had just two plays produced by Black writers; this fall, after being shuttered for a year and a half due to the pandemic, it returned with seven new plays by Black playwrights. Morisseau is one of the few Black women to have two plays simultaneously on Broadway (Ain’t Too Proud is still running – get tickets here), while a third play, Confederates, will have its Off Broadway premiere in February.
Morisseau, who won the “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2018, is also hoping to bring change to Detroit. She and her husband bought a home on Grand Boulevard — just steps away from the Motown Museum — that they plan to transform into an arts center and residency for artists. The couple envision it as a place where musicians can record, poets can host readings, and visual artists can showcase their work in a gallery.
The project is yet another way for Morisseau to stay rooted in the city she loves. “Detroit is how I see myself in the world,” she says. “It’s my sense of home because my entire family is from Detroit, but also because Detroit is my family.”
Read more about Dominique and her upcoming projects on her website: dominiquemorisseau.com