Writing Detroit: Dominique Morisseau’s Practice of the Possible
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Leticia: Dominique Morisseau is the author of The Detroit Project, a three-play cycle that includes Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue, and Detroit 67’. Additional plays include Confederates, Pipeline, Sunset Baby, Blood at the Root, and Follow Me to Nellie’s. Her Broadway production of Skeleton Crew was Tony-nominated for best play, And she was also the Tony-nominated book writer on the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. She has served as co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless. She’s currently developing projects with Netflix and HBO and wrote the film adaptation of the documentary Step for FOX Searchlight. Alongside her many awards for her work, including the Steinberg Playwriting Award, two Obie Awards, and the NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, she is a recipient of the 2018 MacArthur Genius Grant.
Jordan: As part of the 2022 Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference, Leticia and I had a discussion with Dominique about her Practices of the Possible. This kept in line with a conference theme aaround reparative creativity and centering the work of artists of color and redressing harm and pushing forward towards the futurity. This conversation was live streamed on HowlRound on July 30th, 2022, and we are so honored to share it with you all today. Please enjoy.
Hi, welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, our live podcast. Thank you so much to everyone for joining us today. Thank you to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, All the conference planning committee. Thank you to HowlRound who, obviously, Leticia and I love, because you support our podcast. And to everyone who may be on the livestream, hello! This is our first live episode. It is so fitting that we’re doing it here at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. We have been so supported by the theatre community since the inception of this podcast in 2019—cannot believe we’ve been doing this for three years—and this is so, so exciting. So welcome to Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your host, Jordan Ealey—
Leticia: And Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: Your friendly neighborhood Black feminists.
So we’re coming to you live in Detroit, Michigan. We’re excited for every episode, but we’re especially excited for this episode and a conversation with Dominique Morisseau. Please, please refer to your programs for a list of her amazing accomplishments, including the MacArthur Genius Grant, Tony award nominations, and Broadway debuts abound. So please refer to that. Before we begin our conversation, we would like to take a moment of silence for a Black theatre elder who has recently transitioned, Mary Alice. If you are not familiar with her work, you might be most familiar with her role in A Different World. And she’s also received Emmy Award for her work in television. So please join us in taking a moment of silence to honor her life and her legacy.
Thank you. Thank you so much for that. So now we’re going to transition into our conversation. So Leticia, would you like to kick us off with our first question?
Leticia: Yes, definitely. One, let me just say it’s an honor to be in the building with you—a huge fan and lover of your work. And just also just the wisdom that you be spitting in your multiple interviews. I’d be like, oh, I got to quote that. Got to quote that.
Leticia: So just thank you for joining us.
Leticia: And we’re so glad that you could be here with us today.
Leticia: So we’re going to start with a softball question.
Leticia: The softball question is, what got you into theatre, and why did you choose theatre as the storytelling mechanism that you decided to work within?
Dominique: I don’t know that I chose theatre. I feel like theatre chose me. I grew up performing and dancing since I was a kid. and it chose me a long time ago. I think the first live performance I remember seeing was Stephanie Mills in The Wiz. So I just aged myself, but it was here in Detroit and my mother is one of those mothers. She’s a teacher and educator. She just took me to everything. She wanted me to just be stimulated by all the things. So I went to see a lot of plays, and I think it just… experiencing live performance. Then I also had teachers; I saw plays in school for school productions, and I wanted to be up on that stage. So I got up on that stage in school. And I grew up dancing. My aunt, Carol Morisseau, founded Detroit Dance Center. So I grew up dancing in her dance school all my life. And I think that that’s why I say it chose me. I think I just… the bug of performing came from within, from the family influence. And then, funny enough, I know this has not aged well, this thing I’m about to say, but I grew up watching The Cosby Show and—
Leticia: Fair enough.
Dominique: And I always wanted to be one of Rudy’s friends on The Cosby Show. I felt like that was my calling that got missed. But I’m not so sure anymore. So, but that was… just seeing reflections of me made me want to get in it. Yeah.
Jordan: I love that you talk about how much other people have shaped the way you approach your work. And one of those people is Pearl Cleage, and you wrote this wonderful dedication to her in Paradise Blue, which I want to read a little bit of, where you say, “for Pearl Cleage, because of her inspiration to me as a writer, because of her love of Black women in her work, because of her love of Detroit, and because of her essay ‘Mad At Miles,’ which gave me the ammunition and bravery to deal with community accountability in and out of my art.”
So this entire conference theme is around rehearsing the possible, the practice of reparative creativity, which is a theoretical concept by Dorinne Kondo, where she identifies it as a strategy by artists of color to use theatre and performance as a mode repair. And when we think of repair, we think of, okay, this is how we create spaces of care, or this is how we make sure that marginalized theatre artists feel safe in a space, but also that other piece is accountability, which you talk about. And so I’d love to hear about how you stage community accountability in your work and how you also see the role of accountability in something like repair work.
Dominique: It’s funny, when you talk about community accountability, I think Paradise Blue is often a play that can mystify people if they don’t understand that part of it, which is to say that, Pearl Cleage is actually someone who I bow down to literally to her feet. She’s an elder that is an elder in the truest sense of that word of like, just ministering and also guiding and being so generous to the generations that come after her. I can’t speak on that highly enough. And her work taught me to both love myself as a Black woman and to have empathy for myself and for others. And so, when I read “Mad At Miles,” which was her essay, and I had the same question she had for Miles Davis. I had for like my entire hip-hop generation, and I also had it for Miles and for the generation that came before us and the one that’s coming after us.
And so when I wrote Paradise Blue, I was thinking about Miles. And I was thinking about how do we hold people accountable that we also love? Is there a way to both love and say no more? And I think people get really confused with, if you critique or if you say, hell no, that that somehow is void of love for people. And so that we don’t know how to do, we don’t know how to hold both in our hands together. And Paradise Blue was a practice for me in holding both in my hands and literally taking someone out, like, can you take someone out with love? But take them out or take the action out? What does that look like? So anyway, her work and her interrogation of how do you separate, how can we separate the artists and their art? And why would we want to? was really powerful for me. It made me want to be the artist. When you read my work, you will know me. You will know who I am.
Leticia: Yeah. We definitely know who you are. And I love that you just hold, like that community accountability piece is across so many of your plays. Recently, Jordan and I had the chance to see Ain’t Too Proud multiple times. And the way that you hold the members of The Temptations accountable as they’re becoming these superstars is also, I would say, a central part of your work and a central part of your work that’s actually really, really important.
Something else that you said about Pearl Cleage being one of your inspirations—who else are you inspired by, in conversation with? Who has helped led the way for your work?
Dominique: Oh God, that’s a long list. That’s a long one because it’s poets too. It’s a Amiri Baraka; it is obviously, it’s August Wilson; but it is Nikki Giovanni mainly; Sonia Sanchez; Maya Angelou. These are writers’ voices that I was reading like eighth grade, that were showing me myself in a different way. There are local poets here in Detroit that are a big part of my influence, of how I saw the world—how I saw our city, very particularly—and how I see the world. Jessica Care Moore, Khary Kimani Turner, Paradise, Pharaoh. These are writers, and Changa Bey, that really shaped the way that I understood literature in Detroit and made me raise the bar every time. I used to perform at a space called Cafe Mahogany here in Detroit that, in the late nineties and early two thousands was like a little bit of Mecca for Black poets in the city.
I come from like Dudley Randall and Broadside Press. I come from studying those writers. And then in the playwriting realm, Cheryl West, Ayad Akhtar, Lynn Nottage, Aishah Rahman. These are writers that I read growing up that—and obviously, Ntozake Shange, who basically created a whole other kind of play, you can write. She was like, “Oh, poetry and theatre. Oh, look at that.” And for a poet, my introduction into playwriting was choreopoem, and so that was all Ntozake Shange.
Leticia: How do you think your introduction into theatre being the choreopoem shaped you as a writer? Because that’s a really different entryway into theatre that maybe many of us in the audience or on the live stream has encountered or entered the world of theatre. How do you think that’s shaped you as a writer?
Dominique: Oh, majorly, I’m a poet. I’m a poet. I should say also, I have to say Alice Childress because I grew up, not only reading her work, but performing it and using her work to get into college. Thank you Alice Childress.
But yeah, I just, I’ve never stopped being a poet to be a playwright. I’ve never stopped. And every now and again, I break the form of a traditional linear storytelling to go back to the poetry, the choreopoem roots. It just depends. I let the play tell me what it wants to be, and then I go there. And then in Pipeline, all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, I could fuse, there’s a different kind of way.” We are going to take Gwendolyn Brooks, and we’re going to take a little bit of, going to get some Native Son theme in there, and we’re going to do some different stuff. But it’s all the writers that I read growing up that I think shaped my thinking and the possibilities of what I could be doing. That it didn’t have to fit.
This is a lesson that they give in the play of Pipeline, but it was also my life lesson, as a writer, which was, Broadside Press printed Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem We Real Cool in this very differently structured way. It didn’t look grammatical. And in fact, I studied the Black Arts Movement. And so the idea of like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange not writing with the punctuation that was required of them at the time, what was told was standard and correct, just almost throwing a middle finger up to that, really gave me a sense of how we can write rebellion and just form—just the form itself is rebellion and that it is strategic and not wasted, that it is not without understanding and knowledge of whatever these rules are, but in complete and conscious defiance of them. I think was a part of me learning how to find my voice as an artist.
Jordan: Yeah. And so, in thinking about something like form and structure, something I study is Black women in musical theatre. And obviously, you are a part of this ever-expanding canon of that, as someone who writes books for musicals, but also music and sound are already integral to the work that you produce. Whether it’s the jazz club in Paradise Blue or the ways that J Dilla’s music is shaping the soundscape of Skeleton Crew, sound is so important to the ways that you are dramaturgically constructing your stories. And so I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what you want people to walk away with sonically from your work. What do you see as the role of music within these worlds you build? Because I think oftentimes we talk about musical theatre, it’s often like, I don’t know, Oklahoma!—
Leticia: I knew you were going to say Oklahoma!—
Jordan: And no shade. It has endured for a reason. But it’s just, you know—
Dominique: It’s like specifically Oklahoma!—
Leticia: I was on the edge of my seat like “are you gonna say—”
Jordan: Rogers and Hammerstein, I’m so sorry. But it’s just like we’re very bound to this idea that there’s a book, there is music, there’s a book, there’s a score. There’s not a merging or a connection of these worlds, but Black theatre—your work, Ntozake Shange, all the people you’ve mentioned—have always used these worlds to… or these different forms to build your world. I’d love to hear the role of music in work.
Dominique: Thank you. I’ve been asked that question before, but not quite like that, in a great way, which is that for me, music, I grew up on music. I grew up dancing. I played the piano when I was younger, but I’m also married to a musician, a hip-hop artist who actually scored the Broadway production of Skeleton Crew. His name is J Keys.
Leticia: Yeah. I was like, drop the name.
Dominique: Jimmy Keys, but J Keys is his performance name, and he expanded my musical literacy. If you’re a hip-hop artist, your musical influence is way beyond hip-hop. It’s jazz, it’s soul music very much. Hip-hop is a child of soul music. So I think that, that is in me already, how I hear the world and see the world around me. But I think it also, music is there to obviously build culture and pay homage. But it’s also there to challenge. My husband, Jimmy also was the sound designer, co-sound designer for my play Confederates at Signature this last season.
Thank you. Thank you for anybody who saw Confederates. And he did something so profound with the sound design that… my friend and I were just talking about it yesterday. This dude is a genius. I’m married to a genius, and I’m the one with a genius title. So I don’t know how he feels about that. That’s got to be hard for him, man.
Jordan: That’s praxis.
Leticia: That is praxis.
Dominique: How does the real genius sit up here and be like, I got to call you the genius? But he did this thing with the sound design—we call it, he calls it, critical race theory through sound design. And it was one of those sounds that you hear a song and he’ll flip the song on you. Like you hear a song that you think you know and then he’ll show you its racist roots. In the music, which was going so effortlessly with the production. It was like, this is one of my favorite productions of my plays I’ve ever seen because it was just like, this nerd, it was nerdism everywhere. It was like nerding out on everybody’s trip. It was like, “Oh my God, this set design is so nerdy.” Like, Oh my God, this lighting design, this is some... everybody was nerding out on their particular skill.
And it was just like we were going nuts up in there. It was so collaborative and everything. But anyway, my point being with that was like, music was there to add to the story about hiding and covering the roots, covering the roots of enslavement in this country. And the white supremacist roots of that, underneath so many things that we take for granted on a daily basis. And so I was like, this is just like, yeah, I get it, I feel like there’s like a jazz symphony going on in my head all the time. It’s just like, when it gets really particularly crazy, it starts going off like a Miles Davis riff. And I nerd out on music, even though I would never call myself like aficionado of really any of it—maybe R&B, I’m aficionado of R&B. Specifically nineties R&B, I’m stuck there.
Leticia: This has nothing to do with theatre, but who are your nineties R&B go to?
Dominique: Oh my God. Like TLC
Dominique: Like SWV
Dominique: People that I was really into like Jodeci and Boyz II Men.
Dominique: And also some of the other like Silk.
Dominique: Anyway, just like whatever—
Jordan: Deep cut—
Dominique: I could throw some nineties R&B at you that you’d be like… En Vogue. Okay. That’s the last one. So, but, I love music a lot, and it just comes… I can’t even hear, I write to music. I write to music. I have to play music. I had to do my homework to music. They’d be like, “I can’t think. Put the music off.” I’m like, “No, I can’t think. Put the music on.” And it just helps me. It calms me, and it helps me stay in the world that I’m writing about.
Jordan: Yeah. And when you were writing for Ain’t Too Proud and writing with existing music, music that has shaped the popular music landscape of this country, but also shaping people’s childhoods and their connections to it, what was the process like in writing a story about people that we already know, but trying to find maybe those accountability pieces that we were talking about earlier, but also the nuances of how we understand these really major figures like The Temptations?
Dominique: Yeah. Well, the goal for me with Ain’t Too Proud was... I mean, there was already a Temptations movie that everybody in Black America knows every line to.
Jordan: “Go to bed, Joseph. Go. To. Bed.”
Dominique: “Ain’t nobody coming to see you, Otis!”
Leticia: When we seen it, I was like, “Is the line going to be in there?”
Dominique: Right. Well, here’s the thing. I was like, “Everybody that knows this movie...” Including my mother who’s got it on VHS and stuff, you know what I’m saying? And so I’m like, “Everybody that sees this musical’s going to be looking for ‘Ain’t nobody coming to see you, Otis,’ so I obviously cannot take that line. I got to find my own version of ‘Ain’t anybody coming to see you, Otis’,” and I have one. It’s not that, but it’s close. I don’t remember what it was. “Ain’t nobody here going to fall out of they seats when Otis walk out on the stage.” “Ain’t nobody changing gods when Otis sing.”
Anyway, I had to elevate it a little bit, make it theatre worthy. But for me, the whole time of writing Ain’t Too Proud was about... I’m from Detroit, so everybody already knows The Temptations story. So I’m not going to shock my city. I’m not going to impress my city or—I know. I’m sorry. We’re all pausing because we hear a phone—I’m not going to change anybody’s mind. I’m not going to do anything for my city if I tell the story they already know. But I have to tell a little bit of the story they already know because then they’re going to go, “She didn’t know the story. She didn’t tell the story.” So you have to walk this line.
So for me, when I was reading Otis’s biography... And I also sort of had this... I’m going to be very honest, when they first brought The Temptations musical to me, I was like, “Oh Lord, we already got Motown: The Musical. We don’t need this. I don’t know if I want to do this.” And then I started reading Otis’s biography and I was like, “Oh no. No. No, this is something we could do,” because it was at the time... I think it was around 2015, 2016. And it was during that time when the first, I think, wave... Trayvon Martin had already been killed, and Mike Brown had already been killed. Ferguson had happened. I think Philando Castile had just... And Alton Sterling had just happened.
And so we were in that first wave of Black Lives Matter, before they were writing Black Lives Matter in the streets. This was when Black Lives Matter was called terrorists. Right? But when that was happening, artists, we were going, “What do we do?” We were in that first wave of civic unrest that this country was starting. The break that the country is in was starting around then. And I was feeling, at that time, “Man, as an artist, as somebody who’s performing in a theatre and doing all this stuff, what do we do? How do we respond to these times? But also, what is our role as artists and how do we stay visible when the world is coming undone? What’s our place?”
And then I was reading about The Temptations, and they were dealing with the 1967 rebellion in Detroit. And they were dealing with civic unrest. And they were artists in the time when the world was falling apart, in the late sixties, before Dr. King had even been killed, but after Malcolm X. People always talk about King and they never talk about Malcolm, like Malcolm’s death didn’t also change and impact the world, but it absolutely did. And it impacted Detroiters’ lives very much. They mourn both of those men with equality. But I think about that time, from ‘65 to ‘68, and what The Temptations must have felt like, rising and being out here and performing and singing in front of white audiences and Black audiences that were segregated. And what was that doing to their minds?
And then I started reading what it was doing to their minds. And I was like, “Oh man, they were just like us. Going, ‘What do we do? No, man, but we have a dream. We got to still follow our dreams, but this is a weird time.’“ And how do you reconcile all that? And then you are watching yourself be used. So when you see that moment when you’re performing... They go, “To hell with these ropes and these barriers,” and they start dancing with each other, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m singing. My singing is doing that,” or whatever it is. But you’re being used, your music is being used to bridge the world when it’s divided. That’s got to feel like a hell of a burden.
And then you, as an artist, are also trying to fight for your visibility, what you feel you are owed, what is fair to you, though not just Motown, but also with each other. It was just a lot. And I thought, “This is the stuff for me that I don’t think...” When you talk about Motown, you talk about The Temptations, you’re not talking about that. You’re not talking about when they striked, when they wanted to strike, and when they got in a fight about it. And Eddie Kendricks called them all Berry ass-kissers. “I’m going to put that into the play, and we’ll see if Berry Gordy approves it,” and he did!
And so those are the kind of things for me that, when I look at music, I go, “You’re singing about...” A song like “I Wish It Would Rain,” you feel you singing... “Oh, that’s a man singing to a woman.” But what was happening underneath that? Feels like... That song was in a time when all this stuff was going on. I’m going to show you ten layers underneath that song and take that out of being romantic at all. That song is about something way deeper than that. And that was the fun of playing with their catalog. I’m only going to play with a catalog... I’m only going to do a catalog musical if I can totally disrupt that catalog. Like, “Oh, but have you thought about it like this? What if that was about two brothers in the group singing to each other?” That wasn’t about one very linear man-woman, very small myopic relationship of love. This is going to be about something way broader than that. And so that was the fun of doing that for their music. Yeah.
Leticia: Yeah. I love Ain’t Too Proud. And I also am very familiar with that Temptations film. I literally was young and I’m like, “I’m going to be Eddie this time.” And me and my little brother would literally reenact. Love that movie. And what I love about Ain’t Too Proud also is that I feel like it’s a shift away from what we often think of as the jukebox musical, where it’s just kind of like these songs exist within this musical, but they actually don’t necessarily have any sort of theoretical... or not theoretical... storyline thread. It’s just, they’re kind of plopped in there, and then we move, we move, we move. I felt like Ain’t Too Proud is something completely different, a reinvention of what we would call the jukebox musical.
But transitioning—obviously, we are in your city. We’re in Detroit, and you’ve talked extensively about your love of Detroit and how it influenced you. And I’m going to read from your dedication from Detroit ‘67. And you wrote, “Detroit is my family, my best friends, my husband, my first love, my creative genesis, my heart. This for your imperfection, your truth, and your ongoing survival through the decades.” You also noted that the impetus to write about Detroit came from a desire to create homegrown narrators. This city is a central component of the work you produce. There’s your Detroit cycle, your work as a book writer for Ain’t Too Proud, and now your upcoming work Soul Train. It’s also your home and the place you grew up. What lessons can we learn from Detroit history and culture as we move forward in theatre?
Dominique: Oh. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I can tell you what I learned. I have no idea... I don’t know. There’s a lot to learn in Detroit. I mean, I was taking some friends around the town while they were here for the Black Theatre Network [BTN] conference, which was amazing. And shout out to BTN.
Jordan: BTN. Yes!
Dominique: And while we were here for that, I was like, “In Detroit, you’re going to...” It’s kind of like Harlem, where you get off and you kind of walk and you’re like, “Whoa! Langston Hughes was right here! Zora Neale! Was she here?” It’s this sort of thing. If you walk around Detroit, specifically in certain areas like, “Whoa, David Ruffin’s block and where he met Otis Williams. They used to meet on this corner. Aretha Franklin was over here. This is where Rosa Parks was, and this is where Pearl Cleage... Reverend Albert Cleage, that’s her father. And he started the Shrine of the Black Madonna right here.”
There’s a lot of ancestors here, as maybe everywhere, but you can feel the deep-rooted history of Detroit when you’re here. And I highly recommend the tour by Jamon Jordan. He is the historian of Detroit that’s named by the mayor, and he gives a hell of a tour. Black Scroll Network, for anyone who wants an amazing tour of Detroit, Jamon Jordan is my number one recommendation. But you’ll see the history of the Underground Railroad here. Detroit was called Midnight on the Underground Railroad. And so, the history of resistance. John Brown had meeting space here in Detroit.
And so just to know the history of rebellion and strategy, strategic fight, resistance, and nation building is here in the city. And I think that for me growing up, that just meant... I think it’s hard for people to hear this, hear things like Black nationalism. Black nationalism sounds like something else than what it did for me growing up. Black nationalism sounds like all kind of nationalism, which I think we have seen the danger of nationalism. We’ve seen the danger of nationalistic points of views. But I think Black nationalism, as it has been cultivated here in Detroit, is not born out of oppression.
I’ve heard people comparing white nationalism and Black nationalism, for instance. Right? And I would offer a difference of the roots, right? The root of white nationalism and the root of Black nationalism are very different roots, right? One is rooted in oppression and one is rooted in fighting oppression. So from that root, they’re going to go very different directions. Right? And so Detroit has had a very... raised in Black culture, Black history, and I mean that from everybody. So I went to a school where the best Black History program put on ever was from our Chinese American teacher. And I mean, when I tell you, this was next level. He ran a... It’s from kindergarten to eighth grade. We had this thing...
I went to Bates Academy. We had this thing called Bates Battle, and Bates Battle had kindergartners squaring off in Family Feud style. Who’s going to hit the buzzer first? And you had to put teams together. I was in the fourth grade, we had to put a team together. “Let me see if you’re smart enough to be on my Bates Battle team and know this Black history.” And then we had to audition for this thing to be the team chosen for our grade. And you’d see kindergartners up there like, “Who invented peanut butter?” “George Washington Carver!” I mean, it was epic. And you could see the intensity of us learning about ourselves. And Mr. Ye is one of my favorites because of this, because he knew he was in a school and in a city that was predominantly Black, and that Black culture and Black history was not a gimmick. That it had to be integral in us knowing who we are.
So the point is, I think, growing up in a city where there are reflections of the people who live in that city so that they don’t feel like the minority, or they don’t feel like less than, was a huge part of, I think, the entire pedagogy of being raised in Detroit. And thus the police force did not... I did not grow up with the fear of the police like, I’m sure, that I now feel for my son. I did not feel that way. I did not feel that way, growing up. The police were my friends. I feel like what I imagine, maybe in a predominantly white community, what young white children will feel about the police. Not afraid of them, but like, if you’re in trouble, you go to them. Right? I grew up in a city in the eighties and nineties feeling like I could go to the police.
That’s different for me where I’m living right now. Right? I feel very nervous every time I even see the presence of police. I feel like, “I’m not sure how you’re going to see me. Friend or foe? How you going to see my husband? How you going to see my son, friend or foe? I don’t feel I can go to you.” In fact, people use the police as weapons against me for something as simple as, I parked in a parking spot you want. “I’m going to call the police.” Whoa! That’s like waving a gun at me right now. And so there’s a whole different feeling of that, when you’re raised differently than how I was raised here, which was that this police force comes from this community. I know my mom knows the chief, or so-and-so knows that, their cousin’s that... Something feels like home and not like we’re on opposite sides of life. That’s a terrible way to feel inside of your own community.
And so, anyway, I just say all that to say, to me, those are the lessons that one can learn from this city is just a lesson in how much reflecting, how much being aware of the psyche of feeling like other, can be dangerous. And I’m sure white people felt like the other, I think, in Detroit growing up. Eminem, he didn’t grow up in Detroit, but he grew up adjacent to Detroit. I’m sure he felt like other until he didn’t, until he felt other to white people, I think, but he didn’t feel other to Black folks because he grew up as a part of that culture. So it’s almost like the reverse of the rest of the world. When I went to Ann Arbor and went to Michigan, I was confused. My life. I felt like Detroit had done me dirty like, “Oh, this is really confusing. So we are not the majority?” I didn’t understand us in relation to the rest of the world. It was truly Detroit versus everybody. Right? That’s why they have t-shirts called that.
Leticia: Do you got a t-shirt?
Dominique: Yeah, I do. I have like twenty. Yeah.
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. Actually, I feel the exact same way. I grew up in Atlanta, and then when I went to college, I was like, “Oh, wait, I’m the other? That’s not correct.”
Dominique: But you can understand. So it’s also, that feeling of being other, it’s like I now know both sides. I know what it feels to be the majority. I have this weird experience in life now where I know what it’s like to be the majority and the minority. I know both of those feelings. And most people would prefer... I think it feels better to be the majority, but what it really feels better is to be equal. I’m in a pretty diverse community where I live in LA, and I’m like, if we just somehow could keep it balanced. I don’t want to see no reflections of myself, but I also think everybody’s got to get out of what they’re comfortable with and go be somewhere else because you’ll never understand the whole world if you’re only seeing one part. Yeah.
Jordan: Yeah. And yes, let’s get a clap on that. Yes.
Yeah. I think that fostering experiences that center Black folks or specifically Black women in your work are obviously something that Leticia and I have gravitated towards as being a Black theatre podcast focused on Black feminist perspectives. And so your most recent work, Confederates, in that play, you present parallel experiences of Black women who are living over a century apart from one another. And one of those characters is someone who is a tenured professor in a private university. And as we are at a conference about theatre in higher education, I’m interested in that play’s critique of institutional racism across all of these different institutions that you present, whether it’s the literal institution of slavery or the institution of the private university. So yeah, what critiques were you leveraging there? And what was the impetus in presenting these—
Dominique: Parallel, yeah—
Jordan: Parallel to one another? Yeah.
Dominique: Well, I should say where the source of the play came from. It came from a commission by OSF, a part of their American Revolution series. Right? But it was a partnership between OSF and Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis. And Lou Bellamy approached me, so it was really Lou’s vision that got me into that commissioning program. And his vision was, “Hey, Dominique, there’s this Ta-Nehisi Coates article that asked the question, why don’t more Black writers and scholars talk about and write about the Black participation in the Civil War?” And I thought, “That sounds nerdy.”
Jordan: I feel like this is good company for nerdy nerds.
Dominique: I was like, it was nerdy and heady and boring, and I said, “That’s something that I’m going to be writing about slavery. I don’t know if I want to do that.” And as I thought about it more... I am a nerd on everything nerdy. But as I thought about it more, I was like, “Well...” Every time you ask me, if you ask me what’s going on during the Civil War, the first question I’m going to ask is, “Well, where were the Black women? What were they doing?” That was my first question. And then I was like, “Well then, what? Am I going to write about some Black woman hiding and turning herself into a man to get in the army? What am I going to do? What is this going to be? We’ve seen that story a little bit.” Sorry for anybody that’s writing that right now. I’m sure it’ll be original. It just wasn’t going to be original in my brain.
And so I was like, “What is that going to look like?” And then I thought, “Oh, no.” And there was already that slavery fatigue going on, with social media were talking about how they don’t want to see no more stories about slaves. And I was like, “Come on, no more?”
Jordan: One more?
Dominique: We hadn’t even seen Harriet yet. We have to wait until Harriet Tubman gets her due, and maybe Sojourner Truth and some others. So I’m like, “Okay.” So I had this flip. I was like, “Well, if I’m going to write about this, I can’t do it in a vacuum.” Right? I think the thing for me is that I can’t be subtle. I don’t want to be... You watch stories about slavery, you go, “There’s so many parallels today.” I was like, “What are they? Let’s make them obvious.” Because we have this removal, and I’m like, “No removal. I don’t want us to be removed. I don’t want this to be comfortable. I want it to be more uncomfortable. Let’s just make it really direct.” And so that was what made me go, “Higher education. Let’s look at the roots of institutional racism.” And I mean, it’s schools that are on plantations, that are built by plantation money. So let’s just look at it. Really let’s look at the parallel, and let’s look at who’s in those schools and who’s being targeted in those schools. And where is the space?
And this also has come from my own... I’ve done a lot of visiting scholarship to different universities, and friends of mine who are educators, who I came and spent a week or two or sometimes several weeks at that university. I couldn’t believe the shit that was going on. I just could not believe it. I was like, “I can’t believe such-and-such just talked to you that way.” Or, “I can’t believe you having a hard time getting tenure, and Nicole...” Anyway, “I just can’t believe you’re not being respected at this university. I can’t believe this student was allowed to talk to you that way,” or, “This is crazy, what’s happening.” And yeah.
Yeah. Somebody’s got to talk about this shit. Somebody’s got to put this on front street right now. And also, I think I also just remember, I remember my own student experience with institutions. I told you, once I got to Michigan and I have ambivalence about Michigan. I’ve taught there, I think there’s some great stuff that have come out of there. I’ve had great relationships, and Go Blue. And also a lot of hard, horrible stuff happened to me at Michigan that made me want to just quit all the things. And I did not see reflections of myself, and I had to fight. And then I watched my professors fight and get slammed. And then I felt disappointed in those Black professors who I didn’t feel could stand up to this white university for us.
So then I felt like I had to do it myself. And I remember getting in a fight with one of my professors. This…I said some crazy shit to him, but I was so mad about theatre. I think another professor had told him, cancel one of my shows. I said, “You’re going to let him tell you to make you cancel the only Black show at this school?” I think I said something to him, “Well, you’re not going to do it, so I have to.” But that was the truth though. He was not feeling comfortable being the Black professor, putting up a Black production. And I was like, “There’s three or four of us here. If you’re not going to do it, nobody’s going to do it.” And so then no one did it while I was at school.
Correction, Michelle Shay brought in Alice Childress my first year, and she changed my life. But there weren’t enough, we weren’t studying us. I was so frustrated. And then I saw my professors feel like they had to be, didn’t want to look like the Black professor that was going to look out for the Black students. They were scared of what their white colleagues were going to think of them, that they didn’t have the gall to say, “Hey, there’s an imbalance, and somebody’s got to make some space over here.” That’s all in Confederates too, two Black professors have that debate in Confederates about, who should they be there for? All the students, yes all the students. I can be all the students, but then I can also make myself available to these students. They have that debate a little bit because I just want to make space and I want to stamp out the institutional racism that’s at these schools that we keep hushing about. And we keep hushing about it.
You’ve got faculty, you got tenured faculty that’s been there abusing generations of students. And then you got these other faculty members that can’t get tenure. It’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense. So I think it’s got to get addressed. And hopefully, the play will help to start some conversations.
Leticia: Absolutely. We are coming to a close of our questions before we open it up to the audience for questions. But before we wrap up, I want to ask you a really unfair and hard question. You know what I’m asking.
Dominique: It’s unfair, don’t you do it. Which child do you love best?
Leticia: No, no, no. Nothing like that.
Dominique: To be livestreamed and archived.
Leticia: I want you to think about what the state of American theatre is—and maybe even Black theatre—and what you hope for the future for our industry.
Leticia: Told you it was unfair.
Dominique: Yeah, it is unfair. I certainly don’t have that answer by myself. I do think that I would like to see us not practice imperialism in the theatre. And what I mean by that is I grew up thinking that was being taught because I never thought it actually, actually never thought this, but I grew up being taught that there was one God and that we all obey the God, that the God is the greatest God of writing and we know who that God is in theatre, right? But that God of Shakespeare, and then everyone that comes out of that tradition. So there was just never any room for, what if that isn’t my God? What if that’s not my God? Well then you don’t know theatre, then you shouldn’t be practicing it. That seems silly. But also, what if that’s not my God? And this is across the board, actually. This is everybody.
I feel like we have this way that we decide that this is good theatre. And if you don’t subscribe to this religion, you’re an infidel of theatre. And so I would like to see us expand the inclusion of the cannon, not just of the present, but also of the past. I’d like to see us open up to the other gods out there that have ruled this thing called... Because theatre, it’s like when we start doing inventions. I always say this about hip-hop theatre. It’s as if the audience that goes to see Hamilton thinks that they discovered hip hop theatre.
Leticia: They sure do.
Dominique: I’m like, “What? Where you been?” Kamilah Forbes, Danny Hoch, and Clyde Valentin started the Hip Hop Theatre Festival in the early 2000s. By the time I moved to New York city, it’s 2003, 2004. I was a part of the third annual Hip-hop Theatre Festival that birthed the life of a Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love that the culture can shift and change and people can get invited into it, but I cannot take the erasure. We cannot start writing your history at the day I discovered you. It’s not Christopher Columbus. This place has been here.
Dominique: So I’d like to see us abandon the Christopher Columbus school of “once I put the flag there, that’s when it started happening.” And it’s like no, there are so many traditions that we have ignored and don’t make space for it in the past. So therefore we don’t make space for their descendants today. I am flabbergasted at how I don’t see more Latinx playwrights. I’m like, are you kidding me? I just can’t even believe it. It just blows my mind, really. Even as Black women playwrights, we are probably of the non-white writers probably getting the loudest due as Black gay men and Black women playwrights of the people of the global majority are. And I go, “You got to be kidding me. With all of this the anti-Asian hate and the anti-Latinx and the putting Latinx kids in cages, you got to be kidding me if you not out here censoring those voices right now.” I don’t even understand, what’s the fear?
And I know so many gifted Latinx writers, I’m just very confused by that. That’s just a whole other thing. But the point is, and those are all the multiple gods out there that I’m talking about. They have descendants, they have roots, they have ancestors of the word that we are not taught is so also important and valuable, and that aesthetic is valuable. And if we’re going to call American theatre, truly American theatre, it’s got to take in every everybody’s ancestors, they got to be welcome to the table. That’s what I would say.
Jordan: So our final question, I know Leticia said it was a final question. I’m sorry. Our final question is hopefully a fun one, but what’s next for you in terms of projects.
Dominique: I’m really deeply trying to slow down, but Soul Train the musical is next for me in the theatre. I can’t do nothing else before I do that play, before I do a musical, or a lot of people will be angry with me. But I also do have another play, Bad Creole, which is about my Haitian American experience. Yeah, I’m Haitian. Sak pase to the Haitian folks out there, if there are any. We also have, just for people to know, the Haitian Network of Detroit has a Haitian festival this weekend if you would like to check that out. You can just look that up online, Haitian Network of Detroit. So that’s next for me.
I’m finally tapping into, I’m owning my Haitian self. And then I’m also trying to do some things very locally here in Detroit actually. I don’t live here, but I build here. So I have a home I’m working on rehabbing right now and turning into an arts residency center. And so that’s my husband and I, it’s both of ours. It’ll be for performing artists of all kinds to be able to come to Detroit and build with the people that are here. And then my play Mud Row is having this premier at my theatre, Detroit Public Theatre in September at our new theatre space. We have our own theatre now. So good things.
Leticia: You said you’re slowing down? You said you’re slowing down?
Jordan: I heard slowing down, but then I heard all the…
Dominique: Slowing down in a certain a sense, not me.
Jordan: For sure, for sure. Well, thank you so much, Dominique, for talking with us. We are just thrilled that you are talking to Daughters of Lorraine.
Leticia: It’s taken a lot of us to act professional and cordial and not fangirl but inside, we’re about to be like, “Can you believe it?”
Jordan: So this is just amazing.
Jordan: So we want to open up to questions. For folks who may have questions for Dominique. And if you raise your hand, I think Amy is in the back with a mic.
Leticia: We have one over there too.
Jordan: And Devin. We can’t see because the light’s kind of bright.
Zach Daley: All right. Hi. I am Zach Daley. I’m so happy to be here with and in your presence. The presence of Daughters of Lorraine and also Dominic Morisseau. I had the pleasure and honor of presenting yesterday about your Detroit Project and how you construct Detroit’s identity as a place and a region through your place. And in that paper, I argued about how you view Detroit’s regional identity through a lens of ancestors and elders. And I take that through from your dedications and from the fact that these characters in your plays are being haunted by ancestors, whether that’s haunted in a positive way or in a negative way. So I wondered if you could speak just a bit to that.
And then also, I wanted you to know that a student of mine who was failed by a predominantly white institution, but decided to come back to the two year college I teach at, I gave her my copy of the Detroit Project. And just how you were affected by Alice Childress, she was affected by you. So I just want you to know that for the young women out there, the young, Black women out there, you make a difference. So thank you.
Dominique: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. Really, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that. I would never know without stories that you tell me like these. So thank you so much, and it really gives so much meaning to anything that I create. So I really do appreciate it. And for everybody that teaches my work, that blows my mind really, that I could go from searching for my own voice at my school to be able to be a voice for other students like me growing up. So that’s major for me. So thank you so much. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, as an educator to an educator.
And I would say for the history and the ancestors, I think what I learned about… I lost my father in 2020. And literally the month before the pandemic hit, questionably. The moment where everything shut down, let’s use that marker. And so I keep talking about him and speaking him up, but my father is so present in so many of my plays. And what I remember is before my father had passed, all of his other friends had died so many years before him. And my father was the one man who read all of my plays and gave me unsolicited feedback for all of my plays. And also was just very influential. So when I was writing Detroit ‘67, I told my parents about memories, and I would talk to them about just word choices and language. I swagger jacked my dad, as they would say. There’s a whole back and forth between Sly and Lank in that play where it’s like, “What’s the word? Thunderbird. What’s the price? thirty twice.” My man. That was my daddy. He gave me that one, I stole that one.
But the reason I bring that up and then my father, in the scenery of Detroit ‘67, there’s a star, a four pointed star. And there’s all this stuff about writing on the basement walls. My father wrote on our basement walls, and there is the four pointed star on the wall of my basement right now. I took some friends to see my childhood home, and there it is. And I was like, “I got to do something to preserve this no matter what happens to this house, this star must remain as a landmark for me.”
But I just say all that to say, what I realize in writing Detroit ‘67 is a metaphor for all of the plays, which was my father lost all of his friends, but the way he talks about Detroit ‘67 and Sly and Lank is like he’s talking about his best friends. And I was like, “Oh, plays, theatre can resurrect the dead and it could bring your elders and your ancestors and your former best friends right back to you.” If you’re playing them, you’re having a dialogue with them. If you’re watching them on the stage, they’re just jumping in your lap. And I was able to get my father, his friends back with Detroit ‘67. And now I’m giving myself my father back through my whole Detroit cycle and through many of my plays. So ancestry for me is very embedded into the soul of my plays for that reason. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.
Jordan: I think we have two questions.
Amy: I’ll go here and I’ll get you next.
Ashley Lucas: Hi, I’m Ashley Lucas. I teach at the University of Michigan in the department of theatre and drama. And I’m sorry you had some bad experiences there.
Dominique: Nobody’s going to get out of any of this clean.
Ashley: But We are very proud of you, and everybody claims you. So I bring you greetings and honor from the University of Michigan theatre and drama department. In hearing you talk about the ancestors, I was wondering also how you’re using theatre to connect with people who clearly, a lot of your pleasure representing people who don’t often see themselves on major stages.
And we used Pipeline last year with the Prison Creative Arts Project, which is a program that I work with. We do theatre workshops in prisons with incarcerated people, and we’ve been shut out since the pandemic. Bbut we got permission for the first time since we were working remotely, to mail in books to people in prison. So we chose Pipeline as the thing to send in, and Wayne State University did a production of Pipeline that same semester, and a whole bunch of formerly incarcerated people and the students in my class went to see that and were writing and corresponding with the people in prison, reading your play.
And what the folks in prison were talking about in relation to Pipeline had a lot to do with finding that tension between themselves and their teachers when they were young people and looking for the parents and mentors who both could have fought for them in the way that you described your own teachers at Michigan not fighting for you in the way that you needed them to. And how quickly they were dismissed and funneled into that pipeline towards prison in the way that your play so beautifully described. So I’m just wondering if there are other instances in your work or ways that you, as a playwright, are working for the people who can’t always get to the theatre, who don’t know that their stories are there, but because of the enormity of your success in recent years, your work actually is translating to some of those audiences who don’t have the privilege of being present in the theatre.
Dominique: Yeah. Thank you for that. That was excellent question because when I first wrote Pipeline and did it at Lincoln Center Theatre, it has roots in why I even have that statement that I now do with all of my plays, which is the audience invitation to be yourselves in the audience. But that started with Lincoln Center and Pipeline because I was going to be doing Pipeline. For those who don’t know, it’s just about a mother and her son, she’s a public school teacher. Her son is a private school student. And what happens when he’s accused of putting his hands on the teacher, and they threaten him with criminal charges and expulsion. And so she’s trying to figure out how to rally him back and save him from the pipeline.
And when I was doing it at Lincoln Center, my cast was so concerned about just telling this very personal story to Black motherhood and everything that was going on in the world at the time. Because that was 2017. So you see where we are in the timeline of civic unrest in our country. And so I promised, they were nervous to do that in front of Lincoln Center’s, very older predominantly white, but also privileged, economically privileged audience. And so I was like, “Okay, well then I got to change the audience.” And so what I did on the first second preview is I ran down to the audience and said, “If you think this is important enough for a young person to see, come talk to me at the top of the stairs.” And then I took everybody’s information who wanted to contribute. And I thought, “I could do an Indiegogo campaign, just get some money raised for some teenagers to come see this.”
But what that ended up turning into was I reached out to Lincoln Center, we did a matching grant. And so we got enough money to get five hundred teenagers from New York City to come see Pipeline. And when I said teenagers, this was not during school. So it wasn’t necessarily five hundred students. It was teenagers. You could be on a subway, I’d be like, “Hey, you want to come see a play?” They’d be like, “Yeah.” Walk over to the Lincoln Center, go get you a free ticket. Just show your ID. It was like that. And so we serviced teenagers to come see Pipeline for free, but that was one way in which I wanted to change Lincoln Center’s audience and make it just more diverse, looked like a New York City subway.
And for a very long part of that run, that is what that audience looked like because it started to be word of mouth, and they started to go back to the non-traditional communities of the Lincoln Center, at least. That’s not their traditional audience. It started to be more of that. And now I’m really trying to get Pipeline into even more local communities, that’s something I’m working at right now with Center Theatre Group in California trying to figure out, how can we take this play on tour? I know that Pipeline speaks to young people more, probably than almost any other of my plays, maybe Sunset Baby. That also speaks to young folks, but Pipeline is where they see themselves.
We also had formerly incarcerated young men that came and saw the show. I do remember one young man saying, “If my mother could have seen this with me, I think it could have changed our relationship for the better.” Because of the rules that happened at the end and all that stuff. But I think it’s also, I feel the disconnect specifically from young people to theatre and also, I used to also take students with TDF. I used to take students from TDF to go see Broadway shows. And I just remember some of the experiences, them being hushed. I remember they came to see my play Sunset Baby, and then I took them to a Broadway show, and I remember asking them how they felt. And they were like, “It’s all right.” They’re on Broadway, but they’re like, “This feels stuffy.” They didn’t feel like they fully belong. And I was like, “I am still working.”
I’m still working to try to one, make them feel like they belong, but two, not make them have to come here to get it. That’s the harder part. But theatres want it in their hearts. I don’t know if they can get it there yet. Yeah.
Anita: Hello, it’s Anita. Hi.
Anita: I was at Michigan, as you know. I just want you to talk a little bit more about the Confederates because we’re educators here and because the play does talk about the educational institutions as plantations and I wondered if it’s available for purchase and if you see a way in which that play could be mobilized in higher education settings to bring about change.
Jordan: That’s a good question.
Dominique: Yeah, I would like that. Thank you.
I should say right now it is in rehearsal to open at OSF. So it is in production at OSF right now, and I have not seen their production, but I do know the Nataki Garrett, and she and I have talked. And so they were supposed to premiere it before the pandemic. So I give that part to that, but also, yeah, I would love to see Confederates get to institutions of higher learning and shake up a lot of stuff. I think that we had a lot of educator nights when we were doing it at Signature Theatre. We had a lot of professors, a lot of scholars—Black women professors in particular—had a lot of students come to see the play and be advocates for it, or talk about it, share their experiences. So many similar experiences, that I would like to see it get educators from a similarly, now, across the country, in conversation with each other and also in action with each other. Because I know how we feel about one hundred conversations. But conversations are very necessary. I just think we should be talking to each other. It just can’t stop at like, “Talk about it, think about it, we’ll see you next year.”
It definitely needs to be talk about it, think about it, next plan is to... And then we are starting to see the changing and the breaking of the guard happen at these schools. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can be, as a theatre artist, helpful in that process with educators. Because I have seen a lot of my educator friends be mistreated at their universities. Or they’ll bring me out, and this is at all levels of my career, but they’ll bring me out and nobody, the Dean won’t show, or their department head won’t be there. And they had to fight to get me there. Just things that just feel you’re coming up there on a garbage can lid. But, “I’ll be here because my friend’s here.”
I learned to laugh, but always, I had this thing, “Now treat me you treat Tony Kushner.” I’ve been saying that I was probably too young for that even matter. But then I said that to Tony Kushner, he’s like, “I don’t know if you want that, Dominique.”
“Tony, I can’t imagine. It has to be better.” But that’s my thing.
But I would to see the play. And I’m trying to brainstorm ways in which to get it in dialogue on the ground, with people whose truth it reflects. That’s actually what I’m trying to do with all of my plays right now. I’m tired of it just being like, you know, it’s museum pieces. I want them on the ground. I really want to get on the ground.
Leticia: Yeah. Will it be published?
Dominique: Oh, it will be published. It’s being published by, formerly Sam French now Concord. And I think maybe TCG and I are talking about that, too. So yeah. I think it is happening with TCG. Yes. So many things in my head. I’m so sorry. But I don’t know that for sure. But yeah. Yeah.
Audience Member: Outstanding.
Audience Member: First and foremost, thank you, specifically, because I’m really, really excited for your next piece as a Haitian person myself. So yes, yes, thank you for that. Two, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of questions. Priya Parker speaks about asking questions to a space is the best way to relinquish power to that space, because you are then opening it up to the space about where the conversation’s going to go. So it doesn’t centralize around one person holding all the information and gearing that conversation.
And yours speaks about the cannon and how exactly do we start bringing those ancestors, those gods, into those spaces? Speaking to my colleagues specifically at predominantly white institutions, I find that the fear isn’t necessarily bringing the stories in and having the students read it, but then the questions that are going to come from that. And sometimes my colleagues not feeling they are equipped. And what I tend to hear is, it’s like, “I don’t think I should be the one leading this conversation.” And what I hear is just like, “I refuse to do the work to learn about this in order to be engaged in this conversation.”
And so, just my perspective.. and so thinking about the power of your work, specifically being done at in collegiate environments and such, what is an offering that you have, as an educator, for those who are struggling to bring your work into spaces? And not necessarily just to bring your work, but just engaging in conversation, especially to stoke the curiosity of young people who don’t see themselves reflected in your plays? But at the same time, we need to know those stories.
Hopefully that was clear. Yeah.
Dominique: Yeah. I think so, maybe. I think I understand. It’s also what is my offering,… I’m just going to repeat it back, but maybe, what I’m understanding about your question is, what is my offering to educators who may have that same feeling of imposter syndrome? A little bit of, like, “Maybe I shouldn’t be the one teaching this, or explaining this,” and that kind of thing. Right?
That’s a complicated one. It’s the same thing that young people have felt in the studying. It’s like, where’s the line, right? We writers, so many of us writers have had to talk about where we stand with higher education in our work, in terms of who can play the roles and who can learn on the work. And how they’re going to piss off the other students. And students get real pissed off at each other really fast for things lately. They always have, I guess. But where’s the lines?
And I think of a few things. Of one, I think that it is a conversation to broaden who’s at your school. That’s definitely very important. It is also, I think, to suggest that we, as people, can’t learn from each other is lazy as fuck. That’s just lazy. I’ve had to learn the one God. that’s not my religion, but I can speak the religion fluently.
So I think we have to stop that. And get to know and understand. From my own work, there’s enough of me talking about it. A whole lesson could be built just letting me talk about myself. Just literally grab soundbites of every... And I’m not the only one—Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage, we talk so much about our work. We’ve done a gazillion interviews. One of my most pet peeves is when somebody ask me something in an interview and I go, “Now, didn’t you see that in somebody else’s interview?”
Leticia: Oh no.
Dominique: Now, I don’t mind the...
Dominique: No, no, don’t. We’re not saying, not here. Not here. Present company, not included. Because there’s ways in which to, especially when they go, “So tell me what you do.” I’m like, “I’m not telling you what I do. Now didn’t you know this before you did this interview.”
Because we have to be willing to be curious enough, we have to be curious enough about, if the students bring somebody to you, might say, “Hey, I don’t know that you can...” I used to tell institutions, I even told Lincoln Center, I go, “Hey, I really like this director and this director.” They go, “I don’t know that work.” I said, “You get one time to tell me that. Today, you don’t know their work, fine. The next time I bring this director up, don’t tell me that you don’t know the work. Because that’s lazy. It’s your job to know the work that’s out there. It’s your job. You got one job. That’s a hard job, but that’s the job.”
I can’t stand when a casting director says, “Oh, I don’t know them.” You’re not going to say with dismissal, you say it with like, “Oh, I don’t know them. Let me find out.” The curiosity has to be there. Or you’re going to fail people.
So it’s okay not to know. When students meet people and they go, “Oh, you don’t know so and so, and such and such, and such and such?” I’m like, “Okay, well, hold on, let me write it all down. You’re coming at me with a lot.”
None of us is going to always already know any of everything. None of us is going to know that. But now we can get curious and let your students make you curious. And say, “Let me find out where I can find some of this person’s work. Let me get to know that.” Bring something to me that you would like to learn because you’re paying for the education.
Dominique: They got to be able to get something that they paying for to be able to learn about themselves. So I say, “Who do you want to learn about?” We can all going to have to learn about that writer, then. I just would like to see that kind of inclusion happening. So that you can’t just say, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not the right one on this. I’m going to just bow out of this.”
Dominique: “Engaging with this whole thing.” I would say maybe not that.
Leticia: So I think we have, have time for one more question. Okay
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Hi. Thank you for this wonderful event. My name is Darrel Alejandro Holnes. I’m with the Latinx Playwright Circle. Thank you for what you said earlier today, advocating for the need for more Latinx plays to be part of the American literary landscape. We really appreciate it.
My question is, I think that you’re a terrific arts advocate. I have several friends that made their Broadway debut as playwrights. I have several friends, and acquaintances, and colleagues that are the first Black-something in their department, the first Latina-something in their department, the first Asian American-something in the department. And I was just wondering if you had any advice about what it means to become an advocate? And what it means to have your work rise to a level where you’re placed in a spotlight where you now have to advocate, or best advocate, for a community, for an industry right? And how you’ve grown into the great advocate that you are now?
Dominique: And are you meaning advocate for inside of theatre itself? I think I want to make sure I understand the question. An advocate for others inside of the theatre continuum? Or an advocate for communities inside of the work? I’m just making sure I understand which one. Yeah.
Darrel: I’m thinking of the kind of stages that you’re on right now, where folks are asking you questions about Black women in theatre.
Dominique: Got it.
Darrel: Folks are asking you questions about community and advocacy.
Dominique: Yeah. So I recognize that I am not in this continuum by myself. I never have been, I never will be. And that I am always here on the shoulders of the people that not only came before me, but that are practicing right here with me, and that are studying me or studying someone adjacent to me, right? Now, none of us is in this ecosystem by ourselves.
Dominique: And then I also want to say, I also recognize that, I think artists may get disconnected from educators, because it seems education is its own field and the practice of the art is another club, and its own thing. But to me, the scholarship around the art is the only way that the art is going to be preserved. And so there can’t be this disconnect between education and with the practice of it, that’s actually happening in the field, right? Okay. So I say all that to say, that’s my head space for that.
So when I approach advocacy and I approach it in a very, I have a bunch of different... Why do I keep touching this mic... this mic is where I want to be with my hands.
But when I approach what advocacy was like to me, I don’t think that I, alone, have the answer, or the voice, or I am the one, right? Not no chosen one that can thus, I’m not Moses. However, but I can make impact with what I say, how I say, how I show up on a stage, how I stand in my truth and who I see out there that I’m doing work with, and who I don’t see. And I have to be able to name all those things, right?
I think to be able to make space for other Black womxn writers, for instance, Black womxn with an X. To be able to make space for them is to, one, take up space, and open that door, and then leave it open, right? To be able to ask questions to the institutions that I’m at. To check for, but also to mentor, to be able to reach out, to have people who reach out to me and me make myself available to them, right? So those are the ways, and small ways of advocacy.
I think in larger, social justice advocacy that’s happening, I want to learn the things that I am pushing to change, right? So I feel I can’t stand on the outside of an institution and say, “This needs to change.” I have no idea how the hell the thing is run. I don’t know what I’m asking for specifically. I don’t even really know exactly what I’m asking for.
For instance, I know people have often said about Broadway, they have so many things that they want to have changed on Broadway. I’m like, Do you know who runs Broadway? Because if you don’t know who runs Broadway, the things you’re asking for, you’re starting here. You’re not starting here.” You know what I mean?
It’s trying to go after drugs and you’re going to corner boys. You’re not going to stop the drug game with the corner boy. You’re going to the lowest person, the lowest denominator in this game. And so, with Broadway, I go, “If you don’t, first of all, understand the Broadway is a real estate game, than you already not understanding Broadway.”
Broadway is streets and buildings, more than it is... Good work is going to make its way. It has nothing to do with Broadway. Maybe for a few not-for-profit theatre companies who are on Broadway. But for the commercial engine that is Broadway, I feel there’s just an education we don’t have, to even be fighting. I want accurate fighting. I want you to know where that button is inside that building that you’re trying to detonate. Don’t be just sloppily knocking down stuff. Sure, I guess sloppily knocking down stuff works. You might eventually find a button or just get rid of everything and the button itself, too. But you might have just been able to hit the button and do a few of those things for yourself.
So for me, I like to understand every side of the table that I’m coming for. So I ask questions to producers. I say, “I want to understand their thinking in the producer world and the commercial producing world. “And I’m on the board of Signature Theatre. I was on the board, a founding member of the Detroit Public Theatre.
I want to know to donors, how are you giving money” To board members, what’s making you stay on this board? Where’s your mind at? Because I know if your mind is about doing things one way, and somebody here can’t hit you at that level, then the artists are going to get out here and get on that stage and be your victim. And so I think it’s about having a knowledge, a really vast knowledge of how this whole field works, trying my hand, doing some things myself. Because if it all burns, hell, I can build it myself.
And being Haitian, I will say this. During the pandemic, I thought so many people, “What do you think of theatre? What’s going to happen? What’s the fate?” I was like, “Well, I think theatre is going really understand that it’s made a big mistake in not going after these young people.” And not making more space for younger folks to be able to have affordability, to get tickets to the theatre. And now censoring them in the marketing and not making more space for them, because the first people back from this pandemic going to be young people. They’re the ones going to go places without masks. While the rest of us, like... They’ll be the ones that are more resilient out here, and they’re going to be the ones coming back. And they’re not going to come back to us. And they’re going to go back to everything else.
So to me, I think you have to get back on the ground and cultivate from the grounds up. And so I say this about being Haitian, because when the earthquake happened to Haiti, if you ever watch Raoul Peck’s documentary Fatal Assistance, which is one of the sources to my new play Bad Creole, it’s looking at the relationship between Haiti and the US, and what government assistances look to Haiti.
There was a Haitian who spoke, a Haitian man standing in the rubble of his home. And this is my whole metaphor for 2020. A man was standing in the rubble of his home. And the filmmaker asked him, is he upset? Was he really angry? How is he feeling right now? He says, “Angry? I cannot be angry. How can I be angry at God’s will? How can I be angry? This happens. What is there to be angry about?”
Dominique: And then the guy, “Well, you’re standing in the rubble of your home.” And this is an elder, older Haitian man. And he looked dead at the camera and he says, “Oh, I’m not afraid to start over.” And that was my whole 2020. I was like, “Okay, well, the elder told me.” So there it is. I’m not afraid to stand in the rubble and say, “I can build this again. And I can build it better.”
And so, for me, in our field, we are so afraid of it going to rubble, that we will keep some very corrupt rubble, some very corrupt bricks. And we’ll hold onto them corrupt bricks. We don’t want it to be rubble, though. I’m like, “Why can’t it be rubble?” Get some better bricks. Build the whole thing up.
People think, when they think of destroyed, they think that’s where it stops. No. Destroy, rebuild, rebuild. Everybody has different points of view of how to address, and how to be an advocate, and how to fight for social justice. And they’re all right. The answer is, if you’re fighting for it, no matter what your way is, it’s all right. It might not be someone else’s strategy, but if that’s your goal, then you’re going to get it. Right? But to me, it’s don’t be afraid. don’t be afraid of standing in rubble.”
Leticia: So our conversation has come to a close. Please join me again and thanking Dominique Morisseau for being here in this conversation.
Dominique: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Dominique: Thank you, guys. Thank you so much.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters Of Lorraine. We’re your hosts Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: On our next episode, we’re discussing playwright Robbie McCauley. We have so much in store for the rest of the season, so you definitely you don’t want to miss that.
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