Dominique Morisseau isn’t the type of playwright to shush you in a theater.
Her “rules of engagement” printed in the programs of her shows spell out her style.
“You are allowed to have audible moments of reaction and response.”
“My work requires a few ‘um hmmms’ and ‘uhn uhnnns’ should you need to use them.”
“This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”
Morisseau landed on those “rules” after seeing what — and who — wasn’t represented on the stage and in the audience. As a young actor studying at the University of Michigan, she didn’t come across a lot of roles for Black women. So, she started writing those roles herself. The actor and writer had transformed into a playwright, set-designing a world of theater with more diversity on the stage and in the seats.
Twenty years or so later, Morisseau’s vision of theater has made her one of the great playwrights of our time. She became a MacArthur fellow in 2018, a designation better known as the “genius grant.” In 2022, she saw two of her shows run simultaneously on Broadway, one set in a Detroit auto plant in 2008, the other a musical about The Temptations. Both received Tony nominations (11 for Ain’t Too Proud, and three for Skeleton Crew). Each show took home one Tony Award.
Her range as a playwright keeps growing, too. Last fall, Morisseau wrapped a pre-Broadway run of her latest musical, Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical, focused on the Black-centric music and dance show born in the 1970s.
Other plays in Morisseau’s Detroit Project — in addition to Skeleton Crew — include Detroit ’67, which masterfully explores the 1967 rebellion through the eyes of young Detroiters living through the moment, and Paradise Blue, a celebration of the city’s historic Black neighborhoods like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. All three of the plays have been staged in Detroit and around the country.
Like an heirloom necklace, her hometown of Detroit stays close to her heart. Even as the rest of the world applauds her work now.
“I’ve been doing this for decades,” Morisseau says, pointing out the years of hustle that many don’t see before the awards and acclaim. “I don’t spend much time thinking about the accolades.”
There’s still too much work to do, she says, including back home.
This year, Morisseau plans on spending more time in Detroit, “as much as possible,” she says. The reasoning is simple: to keep growing the city’s theater scene. She currently serves as the executive artistic director for Detroit Public Theatre in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.
“She believes a world-class city deserves a world-class theater, and her leadership is a big part of what has made Detroit Public Theatre a reality,” says Courtney Burkett, one of three founders of Detroit Public Theatre.
This month, DPT will stage work by another Detroit-raised playwright, Pearl Cleage — her play Blues for an Alabama Sky, set during the Harlem Renaissance on the cusp of the Great Depression.
Morisseau is also opening a creative arts residency, set to debut this spring. Not far from the Irwin House art space and the Motown Museum on Grand Boulevard, the residency will, Morisseau feels, help give space, time, and resources to the next generation of the city’s artists.
“While her work is being produced on Broadway and on regional theater stages around the world, she remains deeply rooted in the Detroit community and is an advocate and collaborator to many Detroit artists,” Burkett says.
“Detroit is always going to be my home, and I’ll always want to be here,” says Morisseau, who adds that her toddler “just seems happier” in her hometown.
Whether it’s for her own kin or the next creative class of artists in Detroit, Morisseau is setting the stage for the Motor City’s ascension as a great theater city of the Midwest.
This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.