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Arts & Life

Playwright Dominique Morisseau on Detroit, race, and writing for television

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Courtesy of Dominique Morisseau
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought live stage performances to a halt for almost a year now. And though the curtains are down, playwright, screenwriter, and storyteller Dominique Morisseau has been keeping busy. She spoke with Stateside about her new leadership role at the Detroit Public Theatre, the stories on her mind lately, and what’s next for the theatre industry — once audiences can finally return.

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Detroit as the next major theatre hub

Detroit Public Theatre (DPT) announced in the fall that Morisseau, who’s originally from Detroit and has been involved with the organization since its founding, would join the theatre’s leadership team as executive artistic producer. She says that part of the reason she went to the founding members and asked for a leadership position is that theaters need to reflect the community in which they operate.

“We all recognize that this is a predominantly Black city, and there needs to also be Black leadership that this city can look to, to see that there is a reflection of them inside of this institution, that this is not going to feel like gentrification of the arts, this is going to feel like community development,” Morisseau says.

DPT aims to connect with theatres throughout the United States and bring new opportunities and exposure to Detroit’s local artists, says Morisseau. She says she thinks that building on the creativity already present in the area could help Detroit become a thriving theatre hub outside of New York City, like Chicago or Minneapolis.

“A lot of cities, their independent theater communities are so insular, and I'd like to see Detroit's community not be so insular. I'd like to see us partner with theaters across the country,” she says.

Recognizing injustices within the theatre industry

Morisseau says that this past year, in addition to expanding her writing work, she’s been focusing on activism within the theatre industry. As demands for justice for Black Americans killed by police grew and anti-racist protests multiplied this summer, many sectors of U.S. society faced renewed calls for equitable change — including in the theatre.

Morisseau says theatre activists, led by theatre makers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, are examining how racist ideology or practices persist within artistic institutions, such as on boards, in donor groups, through grants, within workers’ rights, and more.

“We have nothing but time to sit back and say, ‘Hey, things that have been working the way that they've been working have not always been working for all people,’” she says. “And so this is the time to call upon our various industries to serve us all better.”

An artist’s job

Morisseau writes in several mediums, including for the stage, screen, and page. But no matter the genre, she says she’s always moved as a storyteller when she hears about people’s collective resilience, simple humanity, and fragility.

“I was listening to the news of the young girl, the nine-year-old Black girl in Rochester who was pepper sprayed by the police. And I thought of her. Her humanity took me back to my own girlhood, my own Black girlhood,” she says. “And this feeling ... that the mouths of Black girls have always been the reason why everything that happens to us is our fault, and why there's no social empathy.”

She says that when she thinks of people’s humanity being discounted, it’s her job as an artist to highlight those stories in narratives — and at centerstage.

“I feel very compelled as a writer, all the time, to say, ‘How can we tell your story? How can we illuminate you and make you brighter than the sun now, so that when you are struck, we all feel struck, too?’” she said.

Re-opening the house

It’s not easy for theatre artists to plan for the future these days. But Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew, part of her trilogy The Detroit Project, was recently scheduled for a Broadway premiere in the winter of 2022. Morisseau says it’s difficult to predict exactly what that will look like, but the pre-production team is discussing the premiere with safety in mind.

“Theater is in a tough place — we're trying to figure that out — but a hopeful place, because I know that whenever we do come through it, we're going to miss the heck out of each other so much,” she says. “When we come back, I think theater, the live experience, is going to feel magical.”

For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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