Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.
The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).
The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.
A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.
“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”
Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.
Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.
“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.
“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”
She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.
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“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”
Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.
Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”
“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.
“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”
Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.
“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.
“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.
“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”
Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.
Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:
“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.
“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”
In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.
Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.
“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”
Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.
“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.