If I asked you right now to name five black female playwrights, could you do it? And no, Lorraine Hansberry doesn’t count. If your answer to this was no, we have a serious problem. Now, it’s not entirely your fault as I often find myself struggling to come up with names off the top of my head. Recalling my days in theatre history classes in college, I could name plays written by Euripides and Shakespeare or Neil Simon and Nora Ephron, but as I sat there as the only black woman in that class, I couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing. Where’s my history?
From that moment forward I felt I owed it to myself, and the many black female playwrights out there to find as much content as I could. Insert Dominique Morisseau, a Detroit native making a name for herself all across New York City and beyond.
Her playwriting credits include Detroit ’67 (Public Theater; Classical Theatre of Harlem/NBT; Northlight Theatre), Sunset Baby (Labyrinth Theater Co – NYC; Gate Theater- London), and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill; Premiere Stages). As well as having produced other original works with the Hip Hop Theater Festival, Penn State University, American Theatre of Harlem, and The New Group. Her work has also been published in New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the African American Soul and the Harlem-based literary journal, Signifyin’ Harlem.
Most of her inspiration for her plays is a result of conversations in communities and the people that she is writing about. Where a common process of playwriting is overhearing dialogue on a train or a bus, Morisseau takes it one step further.
“I have to be able to engage with people and have a conversation with them and be able to go into the community to feel like I can truly bring justice to them.”
Once she does that she begins her writing process, which includes lots of color and music.
“Music really lands me in the time period or region. It helps me recapture the dialect and the words that are popular, the isms, the sayings. That process gets me textured in the world I’m writing about,” she tells the American Theatre Wing.
Well that process seems to be working for her, as her play Detroit ’67 earned her the prestigious Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama in 2014. Her play was unanimously voted on by jury members who stated her play “explores an explosive and decisive moment in a great American city. The jury was completely drawn into the world of Detroit ’67, whose compelling characters struggle with racial tension and economic instability. The jury also felt strongly that the play powerfully exemplifies the goals of the Kennedy Prize. Detroit ’67 is a work grounded in historical understanding that also comments meaningfully on the pressing issues of our day.”
Detroit ’67 had its world premiere at The Public Theater in 2013 and was presented in association with the Classical Theater of Harlem and the National Black Theater.
The Public Theater characterized it as the following:
It’s 1967 in Detroit and Motown music gets the party started. Chelle and her brother Lank transform their basement into an after-hours joint to make ends meet. But when a mysterious woman winds her way into their lives, the siblings clash over much more than family business. As their pent-up feelings erupt, so does their city, and the flames of the ’67 Detroit riots engulf them all.
The play is the first of a 3-play cycle on her hometown Detroit, entitled The Detroit Projects, which is still in development.
Morisseau, who is an alumni of the Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group, the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, and Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, has an extensive list honors to her name including; a Jane Chambers Playwriting Award honoree, a two-time NAACP Image Award recipient, a runner-up for the Princess Grace Award, a recipient of the Elizabeth George commission from South Coast Rep, a commendation honoree for the Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association, winner of the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberger Award for Playwriting, the U of M – Detroit Center Emerging Leader Award, a Lark/PoNY (Playwrights of New York) Fellow. With awards like that, it would be hard to ignore her. In an interview with the American Theatre Wing she expressed what it meant to be a woman of color working in theatre.
“I’m a woman of color, a black woman playwright. I’m a part of a marginalized class in theatre right now, we are still working to make space for ourselves, to be seen on stage, and produced on stage. That means I have to get in conversation with theaters often and advocate for my work and advocate for a new audience. So that what’s in theaters right now, is not the only audience that has to exist. So that, theatre audiences can start becoming more diverse just like the writers who are writing for theatre – which I’m apart of. So, it’s about making space for everyone’s voice to be heard.”
Well Ms. Morisseau, I hear you loud and clear and I can’t wait for Dominique’s upcoming projects. Which include the world premiere of Paradise Blue, the second installment of her 3-play cycle, The Detroit Projects. The play will be premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, directed by Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and starring Tony Award-nominee De’Adre Aziza, Golden Globe-nominee Blair Underwood, and Andre Holland. The play runs from July 22 till August 2. Tickets can be purchased on the Williamstown Theatre Festival website, here.
Blue (Underwood), a gifted trumpeter, contemplates selling his once-vibrant jazz club in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood to shake free the demons of his past and better his life. But where does that leave his devoted Pumpkin, who has dreams of her own? And what does it mean for the club’s resident bebop band? When a mysterious woman with a walk that drives men mad (Aziza) comes to town with her own plans, everyone’s world is turned upside down. This dynamic and musically-infused drama shines light on the challenges of building a better future on the foundation of what our predecessors have left us.
Also in the works, as recently published by Broadway Black, Morisseau is guest curator for The New Black Festival, which just commissioned five black playwrights for UN-TAMED: HAIR BODY ATTITUDE, coming this fall.
2015 is surely to be a year for black female playwrights and I’m glad to be able to witness it. So that when I’m teaching in my performing arts classes in Brooklyn in the fall, my students will not have to feel like I did. They will have a range of black playwrights and artists to draw inspiration from and be inspired by.
It’s clear that she is an artist who believes wholeheartedly in the power and strength of community and diverse storytelling.
Dominique Morisseau, thank you for being Broadway Black.