Dominique Morisseau, ’00, had no intention of becoming a playwright when she arrived at U-M in 1996 to study acting. By the end of her freshman year, though, she realized that few of the plays being staged offered much for a young African-American actress. The rare productions that did were being performed in the University’s smallest venues.
The summer before junior year, her frustration evolved into action. She returned to campus armed with a script for “The Blackness Blues: Time to Change the Tune (A Sister’s Story),” a three-role play written specifically to give work to the trio of black women in her program. Morisseau’s first creation, which she also directed, produced, choreographed, designed, and performed in, became a sensation across campus.
“It just made me aware of how important storytelling is, how much of a void there is, and what happens when people respond by filling the void,” the 40-year-old Detroit native recalls. “That’s the bug that bit me as a playwright.”
Fortunately for the theater world, her itch for writing never relented. Morisseau, now the author of more than two dozen plays and a two-time winner of the NAACP Image Award, documents modern black life through her characters with a skill on par, critics say, with the greatest.
“You can hear echoes of August Wilson in her work, of Lorraine Hansberry, of Tennessee Williams, of Anton Chekhov, but also a voice — seductive, poetic, comic, tough — that is unmistakably her own,” The New York Times wrote in 2015 as her play “Skeleton Crew” prepared to open at Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater Company.
That play is the final installment of the much-lauded trilogy about her native Detroit and emblematic of her penchant for placing fictional characters at the center of recent historical events.
The daughter of a retired third-grade teacher and a former computer analyst who still live in the home where she was raised, Morisseau developed a fascination with theater when she was a child. In the sixth grade, during an English class unit on Shakespeare, she recalls being “so pissed off at what Hamlet did to Ophelia.” Later, she and her friends used her father’s video camera to create their own TV shows, and she performed in school musicals and church plays. When she auditioned for U-M, she landed admission, she says, “on the spot.”
Breaking in as a professional playwright wasn’t quite as easy, though. After graduating from U-M, she wrote several one-act plays and continued to pursue her acting career. While originating the role of Camae in Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Morisseau fretted because a play she’d written was not getting traction.
“I said to her, ‘You know what? Just write another play,’” says Hall, a longtime friend. “I said, ‘Just because one thing doesn’t hit or people don’t embrace the first thing doesn’t mean you stop writing.’”
With that encouragement, Morisseau wrote “Follow Me to Nellie’s,” her first major work, about an aunt who owned a brothel in Mississippi. That resilience and talent, Hall says, is one reason she patterned Camae after Morisseau. (Angela Bassett would later play Camae in “The Mountaintop” on Broadway.)
“Dominique is brash, she is honest, and she has a connection to her authentic self,” Hall says. “She cares about black people and issues that black women specifically have to endure, and she always articulates her political stance with regard to that.”
Morisseau lives in Los Angeles, where she is a writer on the Showtime series “Shameless,” but remains closely tied to her roots. She and fellow U-M alum Jimmy Keys, ’01, who were college sweethearts, wed in June 2013 at Detroit’s Charles Wright Museum of African American History. (The wedding reception went viral on YouTube thanks to the exuberant dance the newlyweds performed for their guests.) She’s also a founding board member and major booster of the Detroit Public Theater. And in November 2017, her play “Blood at the Root” was staged at U-M.
Morisseau’s next work, a joint commission for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Penumbra Theater Company, continues her interest in the impact of historical events on the present. She declined to share details beyond teasing that it was inspired by a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay considering why so few black scholars study the Civil War.
“It’s a play that looks at the relationship between the plantation during slavery and the contemporary world of higher education,” Morisseau says, “and the differences and similarities of the black women working as slaves and working as college professors.”
Morisseau is gratified that her plays are being performed everywhere from Lincoln Center in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the same stage at U-M where she couldn’t find enough quality work two decades ago.
She’s not, however, surprised.
“Am I blown away that something that I’ve been spending over 15 years of my life is finally happening? No!” Morisseau says. “I am relieved that it hasn’t all been in vain. But I’m aware of so many other people who have spent 20 years on something that hasn’t given back nearly as much as they’ve put in.”
Steve Friess is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and 2011-12 Knight-Wallace Fellow at U-M. His work appears regularly in The New York Times, The New Republic, Playboy, and many others.