US playwright Dominique Morisseau tells Howard Sherman about theatres’ responsibility to reach black audiences, discovering musical theatre workshops and writing the book for the Temptations’ Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud
With her works that mix the deeply humane with the topical, Dominique Morisseau has become one of the most produced playwrights in the US. She has written a steady flow of acclaimed new plays on New York’s stages over the past half-dozen years, including Pipeline, Skeleton Crew, and Detroit ’67.
She conquered new territory this spring when she reached Broadway as the book writer of Ain’t Too Proud, a stage account of the rise of the classic Motown music group the Temptations, with whom she shares a common heritage – the city of Detroit.
This, Morisseau’s first musical, was less of a departure than some might think. “I’m a very music-driven writer, even in my plays,” she says. “So in that sense, it wasn’t very different for me. It was like the songs were my co-writer. It felt like the next level of what I already do.”
That’s not to say the experience was similar to the productions of her plays. “How a musical comes together is very different to how a play comes together,” she continues. “It requires so many more collaborators’ inputs. It was fascinating to watch – all of our ideas have to be of service together.”
The workshop stage was particularly eye-opening for Morisseau, even in advance of the musical’s pre-Broadway debut at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. “I could not figure out what the big deal of this workshop was. I’m like: ‘They’re going to be at music stands just reading it. What is the problem?’ When I saw what a workshop was for musical theatre, I was like: ‘Oh my God, this is a show. This is like a full-on show. They learned choreography, they are singing and dancing full out.’ That blew me away.”
Morisseau’s book for Ain’t Too Proud was developed along very specific parameters envisioned by director Des McAnuff, who previously steered Jersey Boys to worldwide fame. According to the playwright, McAnuff had ideas about how the show would move physically, even before the book took shape. Though that’s not to say Morrisseu was simply coloring inside the lines. “I had a lot of freedom inside of that vision to push the envelope, to bring social relevance to their story. I really tried to dig into what the social politics were, and Des shared that idea of the gravitas and the history.”
The playwright notes that her next musical will also be drawn from an existing catalogue, but that she looks forward to working on a show with a wholly original score – and she wants to write the lyrics.
After an undergraduate degree in acting, Morisseau’s earliest work was as a performer, not a playwright. Perhaps most significant among her credits was her participation in the developmental stages of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, playing the role of Camae, later played on Broadway by Angela Bassett.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Waitress/server in a retirement home.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dancer with Underground Dance Project, New York.
What’s your next job?
My newest play, Mud Row, will premiere at People’s Light in Malvern, Pennsylvania in June 2019.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s going to be a bumpy road and it’s going to have to happen on my terms.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Other artists and the people around me – the working people around me. I’m pretty much inspired by the working and disenfranchised people across this country.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Take every moment of your life as an opportunity to enjoy your craft. It’s your way. It’s not a guessing game about what people are looking for. It is simply about owning your time and your room to celebrate the craft that you love to do.
If you hadn’t been an actor or playwright, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I listen to music before I write. I listen to music before I perform – when I do perform. The ritual is finding inspirational music.
Of Hall, Morisseau says: “She’s one of the first contemporary writers who I felt was writing roles that felt like me. I didn’t have to work that hard, it felt very second nature to what’s in my talent and what’s in my cultural canon. When I meet roles such as Camae, when I meet roles like the kind of characters I write, that I think are not heard from enough, that makes me excited to act.”
With her playwriting career running at full steam, it’s natural to wonder whether Morisseau will return to the stage again, especially since she is on record saying she will not act in the premieres of any of her own work. “I would love to play Nya in Pipeline,” she says of the central role in her 2016 play about the school-to-prison path that faces so many young men of colour in the US. “I would be happy to do that role, because I love the role.”
But even though she’s not acting much these days and her playwriting schedule makes it difficult to set aside the time for performing, that background as a performer is essential to her writing process. “When I’m writing, I can see myself in all of the characters I write,” Morisseau says.
“I always think of the actor in me. It’s always present when I’m writing so I can feel the pulse of what is being written. I have this policy: if I can act it, then it can be done. Someone out there can find the same instincts and bring this to life and make this work. If I can’t make it work, then I would never expect anyone else to.”
Famously in US theatre, Morisseau penned a programme insert for the Lincoln Center Theater production of Pipeline that urged audiences to be responsive if they felt moved to do so, although not to the point of being distracting. Warm and welcoming, it began a trend that she sees rippling through other theatres.
“In so many plays I went to this past season in New York, some Off-Broadway plays had their own version of that insert,” she says. “These plays of colour – and definitely plays by young African-American writers – it was in their announcements or an insert in the programme. It wasn’t necessarily mine, but it was their own version.”
At the recent Women’s Day event on Broadway, Morisseau talked about the task of having to advise theatres on how to market to audiences of colour. While she says she’s cautiously optimistic about change, she says artists still have to speak up for their work being handled properly.
Ultimately it is the theatre’s responsibility to do that, she says but artists are becoming empowered to take things into their own hands rather than being miserable with the results. “I say go for it. Tell the theatre what you want and make it happen. But I have hit moments several times when I’ve brought ideas to the table and I’m expected to execute those ideas. Now wait a minute – I’m not getting paid to be the marketer of my show.”
“I’m tired of lip service,” she continues. “There’s a lot of: ‘We really want to do this’, and then I realise they just don’t listen. They say they want your voice, but when you use your voice, they don’t want to do anything you say.” Morisseau
suggests playwrights come together for a summit to address the problem, to determine what they want to see and what they’re prepared to do to make it happen collectively.
When asked if the advocacy interferes with her creative process, Morisseau is quick to dispel such a notion. “Maybe other people are fatigued by it,” she says, “and maybe we should be. But my practice of the work and my navigation of the industry go hand in hand. If I could not talk about the industry, that would be great, but that would mean the industry is working in my favour, and it’s not.”
In June, Morisseau’s newest play, Mud Row, will premiere at People’s Light in Malvern Pennsylvania. This month, Signature Theatre in New York announced her next play, Confederates, will debut under its auspices in May 2020.
Asked about artists with whom she hopes to work, and artists whom she admires, Morisseau names past collaborators including Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Kamilah Forbes, who will direct Confederates, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, as well as her appreciation of Liesl Tommy, Jordan Cooper and Loy Webb. But she points out that she need not work with everyone whose work she appreciates.
“I don’t feel like I have to corner the market and work with everybody I’m a fan of. Sometimes, I’m okay with just being a fan. I’ll just show up. I don’t have to get anything from you other than what your art gives me.”
Born: 1978, Detroit, Michigan
Training: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Michigan
• Detroit ’67, Public Theater, New York (2013)
• Sunset Baby, Labyrinth Theater Company (2013)
• Paradise Blue, Williamstown Theatre Festival/Signature Theatre (2015/2018)
• Skeleton Crew, Atlantic Theatre Company (2016)
• Pipeline, Lincoln Center Theater (2017)
• Ain’t Too Proud, Berkeley Rep/Broadway (2018/2019)
• Edward M Kennedy Prize for Drama for Detroit ‘67 (2014)
• Steinberg Playwright Award (2015)
• Obie Award for Collaboration on Skeleton Crew, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson (2016)
• MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2018)
• Two NAACP Image Awards
Agent: Jonathan Mills at Paradigm
Ain’t Too Proud is booking at New York’s Imperial Theatre until November 24, 2019. Go to ainttooproudmusical.com for more information