By day, Joe Musso, a former labor and employment lawyer, works as a federal court administrator at a Birmingham, Alabama courthouse. But outside of his day-job, Musso is a multi-award-winning playwright whose careers spans 17 years. His full-length drama Treehouse was the recipient of the American Association of Community Theatre’s 2018 NewPlayFest, Centre Stage South Carolina’s 15th Annual New Play Festival, and the 2017 Todd McNerney National Playwriting Award. Musso’s newest production, Aubrey, tackles the topic of heroin addiction, overdosing, subsequent death, and grief. It seems fitting that Musso partnered with the Detroit Repertory Theatre, its mission being to showcase productions that discuss current social, political, and cultural issues. The theatre is playing host to the world premiere of Aubrey on March 28. We sat down with Musso prior to opening night to learn about his approach to the subject of addiction in the midst of the opioid crisis.
Hour Detroit: Tell me about your play, Aubrey?
Joe Musso: Aubrey centers on Aubrey Gagnier, a heroin addict that is dealing with the immense grief of her deceased lover’s drug overdose. She seeks out a grave digger and coffin maker named Ivan Stillman, who she believes can speak with the dead.
Why did you specifically focus on the narrative of a heroin addict?
Like everybody else in America, I’ve been reading one story after another about the tragedies of the opioid epidemic. It’s killing thousands of people. You see and hear about it in your own community, and just about everybody knows someone who’s either had a family member or friend who’s fallen victim to opioid addiction. The stories run the gamut as to how people get hooked on them. I’ve wanted to write a play that touches on this issue in America.
Not having been an opioid or heroin addict yourself, how did you get into the mindset of Aubrey – someone who’s struggling with drugs?
Books, magazine articles, and scientific studies about addiction were my main sources for understanding how the disease works. On top of that, I was reading first-hand accounts written by addicts and recovering addicts. For a couple of years, almost every day I was finding something that taught me what the world of an addict looked like. Oddly enough, after I wrote this play, I’ve had friends come up to me and say, “You didn’t know this, but …” and one person I know said they had overdosed.
Did you connect with any addicts while writing the play?
No, not really. My wife and I owned a condo down in the French Quarter [New Orleans], from 2005 to 2015, where we spent a lot of time on the weekends. You could have a conversation with a lot of drug addicts, sometimes right outside your door. You would see them on their good days when they could stand on the street corner and have the strength to ask for money and bad days when they’re laying on the ground in a drunk stupor.
I have always had empathy and passion for all human beings, including those who are suffering from addiction. I wanted Aubrey, in many respects, to be a sympathetic, empathetic figure. On the other hand, you have to deal with the reality of addiction itself. When I very first started writing Aubrey, it was supposed to be a light parlor comedy set in a coffin shop, really a romance story. But it became about an issue as serious as the opioid epidemic.
What compelled you to change the narrative of Aubrey?
My wife and I were vacationing in Napa Valley, and I was just at the end of reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’d been probably a decade since I read it. That book has one of the most tragic endings of all literature, when Anna throws herself on the train tracks and dies. That same afternoon, we were walking around a very old graveyard in Yountville, California. I think it was the darkness that was surrounding me at the moment that really set me in a direction. Sometimes your perspective can shift from just a simple walk in a graveyard.
March 28. $20. Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson St., Detroit, 313-868-1347; detroitreptheatre.com
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