BWW Interviews: Playwright Dominique Morisseau of DETROIT '67
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by Naomi Serviss
Dominique Morisseau's riveting world premiere illuminates one of the darkest moments in U.S. history: the 1967 Detroit riots that claimed 43 lives and nearly destroyed a major American city.
DETROIT '67 is both a heartbreaking love song to the broken city in which Morisseau grew up and an indictment of the political forces of the day. The five characters through whom the story emerges represent individuals determined to follow their dreams, despite dire conditions.
"I'm a native Detroiter, so this is a way to explain my history and my city," Morisseau said in a recent interview. "It's an important landscape to me. It helped to shape the landscape we have now. I wanted to offer a human face to it for all of us - those of us who have lived there and those who have not."
The story interweaves the delicate nature of dreams, family, race and at the root of all, the love of Motown music, the fabric upon which the characters trace their lives. "I want the audience to understand the different choices that are made, choices that bring home an element of danger," Morisseau said. Her personal experiences and memories silhouette the play's unfolding, but the universality of the characters' struggles, aspirations and grave disappointments are what audiences will relate to.
Music is a key component throughout the drama, practically its own character, around which some key decisions are made and dreams played out. "Music plays a huge part in my work and informs the work I'm writing," Morisseau said. "It's a resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers."
A small turntable upon which 45s are played takes a central place in the drama. When an 8-track player is brought in to replace the faulty record player, brother and sister argue about which music delivery system is more relevant. As Motown sounds envelop the basement bar scene, it becomes clear that it doesn't matter how the music gets in the air, as long as it does.
Detroit finds itself thrust upon the world stage today because of its near-bankruptcy and dismal unemployment. But during the late '60s, it was a hotbed of civil unrest. The 1967 riot, also known as the 12th Street riot, was a civil disturbance that ignited in the early hours of Sunday, July 23. The catalyst for what followed was a police raid of an unlicensed after-hours bar (known as a blind pig), much like the one operated by the play's characters.
Detroit's summer cataclysm was one of the most destructive and deadliest riots in U.S. history and lasted five full days. It ended when Gov. George W. Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into the city and President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed Army troops. The sheer escalation of the police and military presence resulted in 43 lives lost, 467 injured and more than 7,000 arrests. When the national media had taken full measure of the destruction, the country learned the mayhem had also cost the city 2,000 buildings.
"That time is part of our past," said Morisseau. "And it's very much part of my present and future. Current conditions concern me, but I think most Detroiters feel greatly misunderstood. I think the cultural politics of the city have never been fully explored or written about in a thorough way.
"Because of the explosive ways our city has been treated - very negatively - some people may try to question my agenda," she added. "But I think that at the core of this story is the core of humanity, and this particular family is being pushed to the forefront as to who we are."
Morisseau's body of work has brought plaudits from groups like The Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and the Women's Project Playwrights Workshop, and she is developing her second and third plays in the Detroit trilogy that begins with DETROIT '67. "I'm very inspired by August Wilson and his works depicting characters over different decades," she said. "I can't deny his influence on me."
"What I will say is that wherever my creativity lies, it is always rooted in the soul of the elders from which my stories are born," she said. "This is a love song to my family and to Detroit. Part One. There will be two others soon. Stay tuned."
Detroit '67 is a Public Lab production and a co-production with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theater. It opens on March 12 at The Public through March 17 and transfers to the National Black Theatre.