She may be one of the hottest playwrights in America, but Dominique Morisseau did not set out to write dramas.
Morisseau’s play, “Detroit ’67,” opened Thursday night at Penumbra Theatre and she just moved to Los Angeles to write for “Shameless,” the Chicago-set Showtime series that stars William H. Macy.
She grew up onstage in Detroit, where she was born into an arts-loving Haitian-American family, and dreamed of acting stardom. But when she went to the University of Michigan, she found that there weren’t many opportunities to polish her skills. Roles were scarce for her and the two other black students majoring in theater.
“We weren’t getting cast because they weren’t doing nontraditional casting and they weren’t doing any work by writers of color,” Morisseau said. “So I decided to write my own play.”
Morisseau crafted, produced, directed and acted in her own show, a choreopoem in the empowering spirit of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Morisseau’s play was titled “The Blacker the Blue: Time to Change the Tune, a Sister’s Story.” The reception was revelatory, and changed the course of her life.
It was supposed to be a three-character play. But such was the hunger for roles, she cast 20 actors. “When the buzz hit me — we were totally sold out — I saw how important it was for everybody, especially the black students on campus, to see themselves and their lives reflected onstage,” she said. “It opened up a new world for me.”
She switched lanes and began writing frenetically, and not just for the stage. She also was a poet and she did spoken word in Detroit, where she taught high school after graduation, and in New York, where she eventually moved. It was in New York that her playwriting career crystallized as she worked with teens on social justice and creative workshops.
Morisseau was in residence at the City University of New York for eight years, doing social justice theater in schools and jails.
“The work we did there used art as a catalyst for transforming lives and communities,” she said. “That’s the soul of who I am as an artist.”
“Detroit ’67” is her breakout play. In addition to being widely produced, it won the $100,000 Edward Kennedy Prize. The drama is part of a Motown trilogy that she calls “The Detroit Projects.” The other two plays in the cycle are “Paradise Blue,” which is set in the late 1940s as urban renewal is uprooting communities, and “Skeleton Crew,” which orbits workers in the 1970s who form an ad-hoc family in an auto plant. Penumbra has expressed interest in producing the trilogy.
“When you say Detroit, people have an automatic reaction that this is a failed city,” Morisseau said. “I wanted to change that, to show that this is a place of epic stories, of great dreams, of passion and love. I wanted to do for Detroit what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh.”
“Detroit ’67” shares plot similarities with Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” as well as Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” In all three plays, there is spirited family disagreement about legacy, cherished ideals and future investments.
Esteemed Los Angeles-based director and performer Shirley Jo Finney is staging “Detroit ’67” at Penumbra, where she is working for the first time and where the current season is themed “Woman Song.”
“Dominique is one of our great poets and mythmakers,” Finney said. “This play springs from a place of love, and you can feel that, even in its toughest moments.”
Sense of empowerment
The civil unrest that “Detroit ’67” references began when police officers raided an after-hours party at an unlicensed speakeasy called the Blind Pig on July 23, 1967. Five days of rioting, looting and fires followed, leaving 43 people dead and more than 1,100 injured. The unrest also did large damage to the infrastructure and reputation of Detroit as white families fled.
“The spark could’ve been anything because people, black people who had fought and died in wars, who wanted in on the American dream, were fed up with being second-class citizens,” said Carole Morisseau, the playwright’s aunt. A visual artist now, but best known as the founder of Detroit City Dance Company, she was in high school at the time. “What we lost in the burning was innocence, naiveté, social order. What we gained was a sense of empowerment and a sense of how to change things. It was scary and energizing at the same time.”
Director Finney, who grew up on the West Coast, said that the same energy was present in the air nationally.
“Remember, two years earlier, we’d had the Watts riots, and they were over the same issues that involved economic opportunities, human dignity and police mistreatment of folks,” she said. “What we were looking at was the police enforcing an unjust social order. And the sad thing is that this play, in the era of Ferguson and so many other places, is not a thing of the past.”
“Detroit ’67” is infused with the music of the 1960s, including songs by Martha Reeves and the Four Tops.
The play, like the music, is meant to be a gift, said playwright Morisseau. She wanted to do a show that honored her father and his friends, while also providing substantive roles for women. Penumbra’s cast includes James T. Alfred, Jamecia Bennett and Austene Van.
“No matter how low you get, the music is something that lifts you out of your muck,” she said. “It speaks to our better selves, to places where we grow and live and love. That’s the way folks have been able to survive.”
Some people have been saying similar things about her play.