Playwright stays true to her Detroit roots
When Dominique Morisseau began writing “Detroit ’67,” she asked family members to read an early draft.
The play is set during Detroit’s riot/rebellion of that July, long before Morisseau was born.
My father, Frantz, “read the play and said: ‘What about Vietnam?’ ” she said.
He said her characters “are not talking about Vietnam” and he thought they should be.
The play is set in an after-hours drinking club — a “blind pig,” as Detroiters call it — and she wondered who would even bother to talk about that distant war in a party-down basement in a tense and seething city.
“Everybody!” her father replied. “All the time.”
Morisseau laughed softly over the telephone from California retelling the story.
“My novice youth,” she said. And so, she re-wrote the script to include dialogue about that Asian war that cost 58,000 American lives.
“Detroit ’67” was a minor hit when it made its 2013 debut off-Broadway in New York and has earned high praise since then in other cities.
The play won the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for drama inspired by American history. It is one of Morisseau’s three-play trilogy about her hometown, and particularly the African-American experience here.
One of the plays, “Paradise Blue” was presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and drew praise in a review in the New York Times.
“You can hear echoes of August Wilson in her work, of Lorraine Hansberry, of Tennessee Williams, of Anton Chekhov,” The Times wrote of the play, which is about the Paradise Valley entertainment district of Detroit’s old Black Bottom neighborhood.
“But also a voice — seductive, poetic, comic, tough — that is unmistakably her own. Her plays overflow with sensory detail: The music that excites and soothes her characters, how they dance, what they wear, what they eat,” the writer wrote.
The Detroit production of “Detroit ’67” will be directed by Kamilah Forbes, who directed the production that recently closed in Baltimore.
The feel of the play has evolved, Morisseau said, thanks in part to the directing of Forbes, who has given “Detroit ’67” a more universal scope since the shooting deaths by police in recent years of young black men in places like Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Ferguson, Missouri.
“She has found a way into the play that has made the play no longer just ‘Detroit ’67,’ ” Morisseau said.
Morisseau’s career path included Cass Tech and the University of Michigan. Her 2013 marriage to hip-hop artist James Keys featured a wedding dance that has to be seen to be believed.
Although based in New York, she also lives in California where she writes scripts for “Shameless,” a Showtime production about a poor white family on the South Side of Chicago. In 2013, Morisseau played the female lead in “The Mountaintop,” a play about the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in performances in Louisville, Kentucky.
Before acting and writing plays and TV scripts, Morisseau performed in Detroit as a poet. Her poem “Reflections of a Detroit Girl,” was recited first at Detroit’s Café Mahogany and later at the Charles Wright Museum of African American history.
“I am some kind of ’80s child in a ’60s’ world,” she says in the poem, also an internet hit. “I woke up this morning with Motor City on my mind ... I am on Jefferson, on Seven Mile, on Belle Isle, on every Detroit block where teenagers flock ... Sweet 16 parties that reeked of teenage hormones and unliberated lust ...
“ ... I was from the other side of the tracks, watching those invisible dividing lines between upper, lower and middle-class blacks ... My grandmama’s porch and the Spirit of Detroit’s torch on my mind ... Mahogany poems and foreclosed homes on my mind ... City on fire or city that inspired on my mind ... I woke up this morning with Detroit on my mind, with Detroit on my heart, with Detroit on my soul ... We are so proud to call our city home and why we will always and forever be beautiful survivors.”