Detroit native Dominique Morisseau has always been a writer, but she wasn’t always a playwright. Acting is how she initially sought to make her mark. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan during the racially contentious late 1990s and early 2000s, however, she had difficulty finding roles and started to write them. The Blackness Blues: Time to Change the Tune, her first play, kicked off an odyssey that has never stopped. But it did take a minute to get here.
While working as a drama teacher in the school system and even teaching other artists, she honed her craft in a variety of programs. One of those programs, The Public Theater Emerging Writer's Group, she credits with changing her “trajectory” and shifting her primary focus to playwriting. “That's where I started working on my ‘Detroit cycle,’” she shares.
Created in the vein of legendary playwright August Wilson’s influential "Pittsburgh Cycle," which includes Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in his hometown, Morisseau’s The Detroit Project delves into hers. “I knew I wanted to write three plays about my city,” she continues. “One was set in 1949. It’s called Paradise Blue and that was about the gentrification that happened in the city that got rid of the city’s Black Wall Street area. And Detroit ‘67 was about the urban rebellion and uprising that set Detroit on fire in response to police brutality. And then Skeleton Crew was my third one that I wrote and that's about the collapse of the auto industry.”
Skeleton Crew, starring Chanté Adams (Roxanne Roxanne, A Journal for Jordan) and the iconic Phylicia Rashad, along with Broadway actors Brandon J. Dirden and Joshua Boone, and dancer Adesola Osakalumi, premiered on Broadway in late January and closed in late February. The play revolves around workers in one of the last of the auto stamping plants that is barely hanging on. That instability forces its employees to face the harsh reality of likely unemployment. Adams’ Shanita ponders how she will support herself and her unborn child. Rashad’s Faye, who has battled cancer, considers how she will live and survive. Meanwhile, the men, Dirden’s Reggie and Boone’s Dez, who are still negotiating their way in the world, must also find new ways of being.
Having fellow Cass Tech alum Adams in the cast felt even more complete for Morisseau. Adams, like her, trained under the school’s legendary drama teacher Marilyn McCormick, winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education. Because Shanita is so very specific and important, Morisseau felt she had to be played by someone with both that training and lived experience. “She’s a Detroit girl,” she says of Adams. “I just knew the character needed to be played by somebody that really could bring authenticity to her because these kinds of women can be stereotyped because they could just be a lot of things. And I just wanted to make sure that she was going to feel honest and real.”
“Skeleton Crew was just a very timely production. We were literally living out the realities of Skeleton Crew every day during the season of our production. With Broadway shows closing left and right because of COVID, it was very similar to what auto workers have experienced with factory closings," explains Morisseau. "This show just became a mirror to American Theatre, and it's a story of working people. It just couldn't have been more timely if I had planned it that way.”
Although Morisseau received her first Tony nomination for writing the book to Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, the glorious Temptations musical, in 2019, these three Tony nominations for Skeleton Crew—Best Play, Best Scenic Design, and Best Performance in a Featured Role in a Play for Rashad—are even more special because “it means greater recognition for my work and greater visibility for the stories that come out of Detroit. I feel like it confirms that Detroit stories belong permanently etched into our American Theatre canon.”
Morisseau shared that bringing the play to Broadway during this turbulent time was fearless. “We put ourselves on the line to tell this story,” she says. And Rashad, who had nothing to prove, was right there with them. “Phylicia was at the center and one of our most committed and fearless leaders. So, it just feels right that she should be recognized for the power of her performance,” adds the playwright.
Being nominated with fellow Black woman playwright and friend Lynn Nottage, who received two nominations for her Michael Jackson musical MJ, is another treat for Morisseau. “She is my sister and mentor, and to stand in this rare moment with her where we both had a musical and a play on Broadway in the same season, it is nothing short of amazing,” she says.
Never resting on her laurels, Morisseau is always creating. Her latest play, Confederates, ran in New York immediately following Skeleton Crew’s close. And, currently the mother of one is back in L.A. feverishly working on projects for HBO and Netflix respectively, as well as developing her short play, Jezelle the Gazelle, into a feature film. “I plan to keep on going until I reach what August Wilson calls the ‘limitation of the instrument,’” she vows.