Monday, July 26, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 221: Dominique Morisseau
Current Town: New York City – Brooklyn
Q: Tell me please about the play you're bringing to the O'Neill.
A: My play that is being developed at the O’Neill this summer is called “Follow Me To Nellie’s”. It's partially based on my Aunt Nellie Jackson who was a legendary Madame in Natchez, Mississippi and who - during the Civil Rights Movement - used the brothel to assist the activists. I chose to focus on this aspect of my aunt's life, and create a story that centers on her brothel. Set during 1955 in Natchez, it tells the story of an aspiring blues singer who is looking for a way out, a voting rights activist looking for shelter, a brothel of wounded women looking for change, and what happens when their worlds collide during the reign of segregation and under the watchful eye of Miss Nellie Jackson.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Oh lots! In the Emerging Writers Group at the Public, I am working on a 3-play cycle about Detroit, tentatively called “The Detroit Projects”- that focus on Detroit in three urgent eras. The first of my set (which is newly written) is called Detroit 67, based on the 1967 riots. The second is a play on Detroit’s Blackbottom section where the blues had its heyday in the 1940’s. The third and final will be on Detroit in the present in the aftermath of the auto-industry failures and the foreclosure crisis. I am compelled to examine the root causes of some of my hometown’s major contemporary concerns, and this cycle is one of my ways of doing so.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Oooooo…okay….let’s see…. Well… I always wanted to tell stories. When I was 8 years old, in second grade, I would create little short, hand-written novellas to pass around to my friends. The best series was what I called, “The Cabbage Patch Mysteries”. That’s right. These were fashioned after my so beloved Cabbage Patch Kid baby dolls. And these were badass characters. Little girl doll babies that were solving crimes and taking back the neighborhood from kidnappers and drug dealers and whoever else. I was no joke. And neither were the Cabbage Patch Kids. I would force these stories on my classmates. Staple them together like little booklets – the whole nine. I was the story-pusher. And it never left me. By the time I got to college to study acting, I realized I was less-than-satisfied with the lack of diversity in casting, and the lack of work for the Black students. So that second grade story pusher came back and I decided to write plays and cast virtually every Black person on campus who was interested. Suddenly, my 3-person play had 20 cast members, and it was unforgettable. So I guess what this means about me as a writer is that I am and have always been interested in filling in the void, and addressing the issues of the marginalized. Be it through Cabbage Patch Kids or 1955 Natchez Mississippi whores…. if their stories are unknown… I’m looking to illuminate them J
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The Industry. Theatre is beautiful. The art - inspiring. But the industry of Theatre… the entity that worries about tickets sales and superstars and playing things safe and politics and who-you –know…that is what needs to go. I’d change the entire concept of industry, and make the art the thing that supercedes it all…
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Pearl Cleage is definitely one. The way she loves women in her work inspires me to love myself… and put that in my writing. Lorraine Hansbury. August Wilson. Ron Milner. Joe Papp. Woodie King Jr. And the pioneers of the Black Theatre Movement. They are most definitely my heroes.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I’m most excited by plays that tell stories of a pocket of people in a very specific community and can somehow find a way to make it connect to socio-political issues and be completely universal without me even knowing. When I’m connected to the humanity of a story…. And I’m laughing and crying and thinking all at once - I’m thrilled…
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be fearless. Develop great understanding about WHO you’re writing about. Don’t just read about them or overhear them talking in public. Find them and learn from them and love them enough to do them justice. Find peers that you trust and share your work with them. Do not wait for permission from others to write. Do not wait until you know you won’t fail. Do not wait until some great theatre calls you and offers you a reading. Do not wait do not wait do not wait….