Stage Struck

Dominique Morisseau’s three-play cycle about Detroit gains off-Broadway attention

Dominique Morisseau has read her poetry before in the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, and she performed there in plays, too. But her act planned for this year is something different: She’s getting married on the building’s stage.

For some couples, the museum’s General Motors Theater would be an unusual place to exchange vows. But it feels ideal and even nostalgic for Morisseau and James Keys, a hip-hop artist who performs as “J. Keys.” They worked there together in one of her early plays. In that all the world’s a stage, this one is logical for their wedding scene.

“It’s been a busy year, a life-changing year,” says Morisseau, a Cass Tech and University of Michigan graduate whose off-Broadway play Detroit ’67 has drawn critical attention this year in New York.

Photographs ©2013 Joan Marcus

“I’m navigating a whole new way of life,” she says. “I’m a full-time actor, artist, and playwright. It’s a hard thing to be.”

Perhaps so, but many young artists would gladly trade places with this young Detroiter on the rise. Morisseau is writing a three-play cycle about African-American life in her hometown.

The first play deals with Detroit’s 1967 riot/rebellion. In a mixed review, The New York Times said her play “evokes the period with vibrant specificity…the play crackles with humor…” but also “has the diagrammatic feeling of an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom.” The New York Post wrote: “The show has such heart and is so warmly acted that it draws you in…” The Village Voice said the play “reveals some real strengths, along with some novice missteps.”

A reviewer for the online literary magazine The Millions wrote that Morisseau and a new generation of Detroit artists are able to see their city “beyond the tired clichés, beyond the ruin porn and rosy optimism, beyond the finger-pointing and the exhausted racial-political rhetoric.”

Morisseau’s second play in the cycle, already circulating among producers, is called Paradise Blue, about a jazz club in the long-demolished Black Bottom neighborhood on the near East Side in 1949.

The third play — currently in development — is  Skeleton Crew, set in the break room of an auto plant in 2008. Morisseau says one of her inspirations is August Wilson, who wrote a 10-play cycle about black life in Pittsburgh.

“I want to do this for Detroit,” Morisseau says, “and put our experience into the American canon of theater.” She mentions other inspirations, including Katori Hall, her friend whose recent Broadway hit, The Mountaintop, imagined the night before the death of Martin Luther King.

And then there’s Tennessee Williams. “I just connect to his work,” Morisseau says. “I love how he gets down and dirty. He bares all. I love the dirt under people’s fingernails.”

Morisseau speaks in a restaurant near the Broadway theater district, a market she wants to reach. She wears jeans under a green, red, and black sleeveless blouse. Her long hair is tied back and up, accenting her expressive face.

She wears on her earlobes large, gold hoops that sway as she talks while waving her long, bare arms for emphasis. Morisseau says she grew up without a good sense of Detroit history — even though she was raised near McNichols and Livernois — and is making up for lost time. “If these walls could talk, if these waters could talk, if these trees could talk, what do they know?” she asks.

Morisseau’s roots are in poetry and the “New Spoken Word Movement,” she says, which flourished at Café Mahogany in Detroit’s Harmonie Park. She performed her poems there in 1998-99 before moving to New York and specializing in theater.

At the Wright Museum a couple of years ago, she read a poem called “Reflections of a Detroit Girl,” which included lines like:

…I am some kind of ’80s child in a ’60s world…I woke up this morning with Motor City on my mind. Cars going ‘putt-putt’…I am on Jefferson, on Seven Mile, on Belle Isle, on every Detroit block where teenagers flock and park and talk… I woke up this morning with Hart Plaza on my mind…August suns kissing Detroit Rivers…I was from the other side of the tracks squashing those invisible dividing lines between upper, lower and middle-class blacks…My Grand-mamma’s porch and the Spirit of Detroit’s torch on my mind…Inadequate mayors and character slayers on my mind…I woke up this morning with Detroit on my mind, with Detroit on my heart, with Detroit on my soul.

Morisseau is often asked in New York if she’s from the South. Her French name leads people to assume she’s from New Orleans. (He father, Frantz, came from Haiti. Her mother, Linda, is from Detroit — with family roots in Mississippi.)

“We create a path and make things beautiful. … Artists save cities.”
— Dominique Morisseau

And it’s partly because of her Detroit accent — one that most Detroiters don’t hear until they leave and get perspective. On a recent visit home, Morisseau says she sat down at a shopping mall to listen to the sound of Detroit voices.

“Oh, my God!” she says of the accent. “It’s so country.”

She doesn’t mean it as a putdown; it’s just a fact lingering from the Great Migration of whites and blacks from the South for jobs in the first half of the 20th century.

Morisseau’s mother taught school in Highland Park for 40 years, and her father retired early after a serious stroke. But in the 1980s, he had an early videotape camera and would often film his young daughter and her friends playing house and using their imaginations.

“I love the make-believe,” she says. “Come play with me, and let’s build a fake world and get real in the middle of it.”

Despite growing up in Detroit during its decades of decline, Morisseau is optimistic about the city’s future, in part because of its artists. “Detroit’s artists scene is incredible,” she says. “We create a path and we make things beautiful. Artists build civilizations. Artists save cities.”