By: Curious Theatre Company On: December 05, 2017 In: Uncategorized Comments: 0

By Katie Maltais

Dominique Morisseau is a busy woman. Ask anyone – she’s tough to track down. An actress and playwright, Dominique seems to be shooting to the stratosphere with a stockpile of awards (including two NAACP Image Awards, an Obie, the Edward Kennedy Prize, numerous playwriting awards, and even the Spirit of Detroit). Yet no theatre has brought her incredible work to Colorado before now.

When I called her on a Friday afternoon, we had 30 minutes crammed between two other appointments – she does not slow down. In fact, after college Dominique was set to move to New York from her hometown of Detroit. Her scheduled moving date was September 14, 2001. After the devastation three days prior, Dominique delayed her move, but only by a month. “Not even those events were going to deter me from coming to New York City. When I met New York, I met a New York in mourning.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that a woman with that much determination jumped into playwriting as a way to create roles for black women like herself. “I was at [the University of] Michigan, in their theatre program as an actress and I was not finding enough roles for someone from my background. And so I had to create that for myself and the other two black women in the department. I felt like we were all being underutilized and we weren’t working on work that reflected our culture. I wanted to contribute something.”

She has since become one of the first names brought up in a discussion on playwrights diving into social justice issues. Her plays always speak to an issue in a very personal way. Her writing makes you feel deeply invested the characters she creates; rooting for them, worrying for them, and hoping with them.

When I asked her about her approach, Dominique shared that she starts with the issue she wants to address, then backs into the play by looking for people that issue impacts the most – and then she writes a play about those people. “What is somebody willing to fight for? What do they want really badly? How bad to they want it? What they willing to do to get it?” Then she laughed and added, “I don’t even know if they gonna get it until I’m done writing.”

When the conversation turned to Curious’ young playwrights program, Dominque offered up a pearl of wisdom: “Do whatever is necessary to give [yourselves] creative courage. A lot of times what blocks us in our courage is exposure – fear of being exposed. What questions are [you] wrestling with in the world? To me, that’s what makes the best art. When someone hasn’t made up their mind about something and they’re still agitated or itched by something and they want to work it out.”

Detroit ’67 is the first of three plays Dominique wrote about her hometown. “I’m a daughter of Detroit and I have a lot of love for where I’m from. I am deep generations into that city. For me, when the media talks about Detroit in a negative way, they are literally talking about my family. I have over 300 family members in the city of Detroit.”

“Foremost, [I want to] be a better author for that city than the media has been. The second thing is, I have an interest in exploring my own history and my family’s history. I wanted to understand moments that changed the landscape of our city.” She tackled Detroit ’67 as a way to explore what the media called ‘riots’ and the black community now call ‘the uprising’ in the summer of 1967.

With such a wide network to draw from, Dominique didn’t have to look far for research assistance when crafting Detroit ’67. “My research subjects were my family, ‘cause they lived through it… I went to my uncle, who I discovered randomly was a journalist. I was talking to him about what I wanted to write and he pulled a big binder [full of newspaper clippings] off the shelf and said ‘here you go, start with that’.” Chuckling, she added, “You just don’t know who’s in your family.”

Of course, Motown features prominently in the play and in Dominique’s vision of the time period, giving her the “language or the local color of the time.”

One interesting bit of research Dominique did for Detroit ’67 was to look up all the people who were killed during that summer of violence. “What I noticed about some of them were they were like ‘James Bumpy Robertson’. All of a sudden I saw this person. I was like ‘Oh my god, they had a nickname!’ They were ‘Bumpy’ to somebody and they were ‘James’ to somebody. I started to have more affection for them just based on their name. And I thought ‘I’m going to give everyone in this play a nickname except for Caroline because she’s from outside their world.’ We’re going to get a lot of meaning out of these names and nicknames.”

As one might expect from an author who focuses more on the characters than propagating a position on an issue, Dominique is very open about what she hopes people take away from her work. “I hope you feel compelled to find the action that’s right for you.”

“The goal I have in the work, other than to humanize the people the work is about, is to encourage reflection that will lead you to find the right action for yourself. I’m an activist and an artist. And what I understand about activism is that it takes many different shapes. Not everyone is an activist, but everybody has something they can do. I hope [the play] inspires positive action and deeper reflection around this issue.”

Surely, Detroit ’67 inspires exactly that. And as I hang up with this accomplished playwright, I wonder what action our audience, those sitting in their seats reading this now, will take and what thoughts may change in their head after seeing this play.