The Sincere Storyteller

Broadway fans will soon learn, playwright Dominique Morisseau’s work is unapologetically Detroit
Dominique Morriseau // Photograph by Jenny Graham

In an industrial studio space in Brooklyn, five men clad in hoodies and sweatpants line up in front of a mirrored wall in a brief video posted to playwright and Detroit native Dominique Morisseau’s Instagram account. Perfecting Motown dance moves, the group is preparing for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, a musical that has been performed in Toronto and Los Angeles. When the show debuts on Broadway in New York City next year, it will re-introduce a global audience to the story of the iconic, Detroit-born singing sensations.

Though not set to hit Broadway stages until the spring, the musical has already garnered national attention. Along with the beloved song catalogue performed in the show, the hype surrounding Ain’t Too Proud is likely due in part to the relevance the Temptations’ story still has today — a connection that Morisseau tapped into when writing the musical. “It’s timeless,” she says. “It’s also timely because it is dealing with these young black musicians who are trying to navigate their identity and role as artists at a time when the nation is in great civic unrest.”

In 2015, when producers were starting to put the production together, Morisseau stood out as an ideal playwright for the project. She’s written for theater, performed spoken word, acted, and even served as a co-producer for the Showtime comedy series, Shameless. She’s received countless awards and industry recognition for her work, much of which touches on her hometown. “It felt like a really good match for me to tell [the Temptations story] since I was passionate about writing about Detroit,” she says. “For me, it’s important to reclaim our city from the myth-makers and tell the truth about who we are.”

Ain’t Too Proud // Photograph by Matthew Murphy

Although she now lives in NYC, Morisseau has a solid understanding of Detroit’s DNA. Growing up in the city, she was immersed in art, dance, acting, and music — her first memory of a musical being when she saw the The Wiz in Detroit. Apart from the performing arts scene, one of Morisseau’s deepest appreciations for the city is that she saw herself in her role models — all of the doctors, lawyers, and police officers that she knew as a child were African-American. “That gave me a strong sense of who I was and that any possibility of a future was available to me. It’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to see themselves.”

The culture at the University of Michigan, where Morisseau began studying acting in 1996, proved to be different. She says African-American enrollment was only 8 percent, and that at the time, the theater department’s curriculum focused on work by “old, white, dead men.” As semesters passed, Morisseau looked for ways to be exposed to more diverse work, and eventually wrote a play for herself and the other African-American women in theater. “I realized that I have to make the roles that I want to see and be in. That catapulted the playwright in me.”

“It is my job to try to fully explore all the people I’m writing about and understand who they are, whether or not I share their beliefs.”
— Dominique Morisseau

Following graduation, Morisseau relocated to NYC and learned very quickly that she would have to face rejection as many creatives were competing for a limited number of theater positions in the big city. Though an uphill battle, especially when race and gender were involved, Morisseau persevered and started to make her mark as a playwright. “You have to tap into the person that doesn’t feel like there are any barriers — but there definitely are. It gets more unfair the more you find yourself in the margins.”

Heather Velaquez and Namir Smallwood in a production of Pipeline
Heather Velaquez (left) and Namir Smallwood in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Pipeline in NYC. // Photograph by Jeremy Daniel

Those obstacles are themes frequently explored in many of Morriseau’s storylines. In The Detroit Project, a three-play cycle comprised of Detroit ’67, Paradise Blue, and Skeleton Crew, she touches on issues like racial tension, economic instability, and the difficult decisions that come with following a dream. One of her latest works, Pipeline, is now playing through Nov. 4 at the Detroit Public Theatre, a nonprofit that she serves on the board of directors for. In an attempt to expose the school-to-prison pipeline, the play follows an inner-city African-American teacher who aims to give her son the educational opportunities unavailable to her students. Morisseau considers the play to be one of the most important pieces she’s written. “I am a woman. I am a black woman. Anything that impacts those identities is going to impact me. It’s the way in which I first know how to move through the world.”

Still, Morisseau sees the value in sharing a vast range of stories about subjects outside of her own demographic. “It is my job to try to fully explore all of the people that I’m writing about and understand who they are, whether or not I share their beliefs.” Through her work, she wants to help people broaden their perspectives and understand each other better. “I hope it’s opening minds to think a little differently about something they haven’t even thought about before. I hope it gives voice to people who have felt otherwise under acknowledged.”