Dominique Morisseau talks ‘Detroit ’67,’ Black theater and more

Dominique Morisseau
Dominique Morisseau

An award-winning playwright is bringing her play about Detroit to St. Paul later this month.

Dominique Morisseau is a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient and has produced six one-act plays. Now she’s currently developing a three-play cycle on her Detroit hometown. The first, Detroit ’67, will have a four-week run at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater April 23 — May 17.

Detroit ’67 is about two siblings who inherited their childhood home after their parents’ death, and hold “basement parties” during a time when the city police began cracking down on such after-hours activities. One such crackdown led to five days of rioting, where 43 people died and thousands of properties were damaged in late July 1967.

Morisseau discussed the play and her other projects March 30 in the third “Let’s Talk Theater,” hosted by Penumbra Co-Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy. Bellamy asked Morisseau what got her into playwriting. “I wrote as a little girl,” answered Morisseau. “I really got into thinking I would be a writer when I was eight.” But she admits the “theater bug” bit her hard in college.

“I started writing plays when I was in college. When I wasn’t writing plays, I was writing poetry,” continued Morisseau, a University of Michigan graduate. She pointed out the frustrations of being one of only three Black females in her theater department, and getting bypassed for roles. “I started to feel invisible at Michigan. I thought since they weren’t going to produce [Black] plays, then I had to write them myself.”

Her first play was “a three Black woman play turned into a cast of 20 because I wrote it, I directed it, I choreographed it, acted in it, costume designed. Anybody who wanted to be in the play, I didn’t turn them away,” she said.

When asked why she created a play trilogy on her hometown where she and her husband still lives, Morisseau said that she was greatly influenced by the late August Wilson, whose plays highlights life in Pittsburgh. “I wanted to do that for Detroit,” she pointed out. “I don’t like the way Detroit is depicted in the media. None of them know Detroit. They don’t know the people. I wanted to tell the truth about my city, about the people and not about the politics. People make up a city . . . I wanted to share something different about my hometown.”

Erin Washington
Erin Washington

“She is our Wilson,” declared Erin Washington, who was among several actors that read excerpts from Morisseau’s plays during the event.

When an audience member asked about today’s Detroit, “There is a Teflon spirit that happens in a place where people are faced with adversity,” said Morisseau. “People are living their lives [in Detroit]. Nobody is going around kicking rocks all day.

“I am not going to write an epitaph for my city,” she reiterated. “I can’t write a play without hope. I definitely won’t do that . . . for my city.”

Bellamy asked the playwright if there was a correlation between what happened in Detroit in 1967 and what occurred last year in Ferguson: “Yes,” replied Morisseau. “The first time when I looked at the footage of Ferguson, I see tanks,” which also were brought in to Detroit to quell the disturbance. Both cities dealt with police mistreatment of Blacks, as well, added Morisseau.

In a brief MSR interview after the Q&A, Morisseau explained she got most of her research through personal stories from family members on 1967 Detroit: “I have an uncle who is a journalist that I didn’t realize was a journalist until I was telling him I was writing this play,” she recalled. “He pulls out this binder and it’s filled with articles and material about the riots — papers he saved that he’s written and others have written. My uncle [also] gave me books to read, and I read them… My husband’s whole family [and her parents] lived through that era. My biggest research subjects were family.”

The March 30 evening event was mostly attended by Whites, something Bellamy touched on by stating: “We’re so blessed to have an artist to honor us with their time, and actors who believe in the company and what we are trying to do, and an audience that wants to learn about it,” responded Bellamy. “I always hope for more Blacks in the audience, whether it’s our plays or these events. There are certain events that turn out more than others.”

Dominque Morisseau with students
Dominque Morisseau with students

U of M acting students Amber Montgomery and Rosey Lowe both said they wanted to see Morisseau. “It was interesting hearing artists speak,” said Montgomery, who moved to the Twin Cities almost three years ago from Detroit. “I wanted to hear more about Dominique’s work,” added Lowe.

“It was phenomenal to be on stage with Dominique because I remember five-six years ago in New York when she wasn’t a household name,” noted Washington, a Penumbra August Wilson Fellow. “She has a commitment to creating Black work within Black spaces.”

Like Bellamy, Washington was also disappointed in the low turnout of Blacks. “I think that’s for multiple reasons, but also think that us as Black theater [need to] start thinking about how we engage [Black] people again,” said Washington, who added that she wants Penumbra “to be buzzing with Black people.”

“Ultimately I am a positive person, so I like to think positively about things. But when I am deconstructing something…no matter what it is, what I am most interested in is connecting our humanity and our human tissue. Any story for me [that] I tell…I want to create three-dimensional human beings,” surmised Morisseau, who told the MSR that she hoped the audience “feels connected” to the characters after seeing Detroit ’67.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to