Dominique Morisseau: An American Classic
August 10, 2018
by Luan Schooler
Dominique Morisseau’s roots in Detroit are deep. She grew up in the College Park neighborhood, in the house where her parents still live. She has an extended family of three hundred people there, plus more from her husband’s side of the family.
Born in 1977, she attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (only 40 miles from home), studying theatre. In the largely white theatre department, she found that she was not being challenged with juicy roles that she could identify with and was spurred to write her first piece for the theatre: The Blackness Blues — Time to Change the Tune (A Sister’s Story). Although it was originally conceived as a play for three actresses, more and more African American women on campus wanted to be a part of it and the cast grew to twenty. The experience revealed to her the importance for all people to see themselves represented on stage, in stories, in all forms of artistic expression – and lead to her deep commitment to writing about people on the fringes who are all too often overlooked, unseen, and unheard.
Skeleton Crew is part of Morisseau’s Detroit Cycle, three plays set in Detroit at transformational moments in the city’s history. Paradise Blues is set in 1949 in a Detroit neighborhood, when jazz icons Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others performed before the neighborhood was destroyed to make way for urban renewal projects. Detroit ’67 is set during the riots that tore the city apart. Skeleton Crew is set in 2008, when the recession was devastating the auto industry and leading the city to bankruptcy.
In many ways, the Detroit Cycle is a love letter to her hometown. She has spoken of the horror and anger that flooded her when she heard Mitt Romney say “let Detroit go bankrupt” during his 2008 campaign. She was stung by what seemed to be cavalier ignorance, and appalled by the idea that all the people of Detroit – the factory workers, the teachers, waitresses, all those who put together modest lives through hard work and steadiness – should be punished for the greed and excess of corporate executives. Like almost everyone in Detroit, Morisseau has family and friends who lost their jobs and then their homes to the recession. When visiting home a few years ago, she and her husband talked with a young woman who was living in her car. Morisseau says,
“It felt perverted. This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars.”
She began writing her Detroit Cycle plays in 2011, and Skeleton Crew is the last of the three, premiering in January 2016. To write it, she interviewed people who’d worked at all levels in auto plants, from those on the floor, retirees, managers, and union workers, and was deeply impressed by the pride that everyone had when talking about their work. She also pulled from the experiences of her family and friends, folding the stories of her loved ones into her characters’ plights.
Like all of her work, Skeleton Crew is a deeply compassionate, fiercely moral work. Her characters are caught in traps they had no hand in building, continually having to choose between sacrifice and selfishness, between friendship and security, between ethics and survival. They are warm, funny, competitive, astute, and under normal circumstances, loyal to the last – but in the ‘new normal’ can they really afford to be loyal?
Dominique Morisseau stands shoulder to shoulder with great American writers like August Wilson, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets. Like them, her concern for the dignity and grace of the ‘little guy’ permeates the work, embodying what Linda Loman says of her salesman husband, “attention must be paid.” She has also been compared favorably to Tennessee Williams for the deeply romantic musicality or powerful rhythm of her language. Her gift to Detroit – and to all of us – is to truly see, to truly represent, to truly stand for people who are too often overlooked. She says, “I want the people of my city to feel that they have been immortalized in art, that there’s someone who sees them and recognizes them and loves them enough to scribe them.”
Lucky Detroit. Attention is truly being paid.