Detroit Playwright-Actor Dominique Morisseau Loves Defying Discomfort
December 29th, 2016, 11:54 PM
For the past few years, Dominique Morisseau has been considered one of the hottest playwrights in America. The 38-year-old Detroit dramatist and actor has seen her plays produced on a multitude of stages while accumulating a host of awards and accolades, including the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and the NAACP Image Award.
Her acclaimed “Detroit ‘67,” the first of her three-play series called the “Detroit Projects,” earned Morisseau the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. Her success in theater helped her land a gig in the television industry in Los Angeles, where she’s a writer for Showtime’s comedy-drama series “Shameless.”
“I’m hot right now. I’m the flavor of the month,” she jokes.
Morisseau credits her success to her decisions to “step into her fears” and place herself in uncomfortable situations, such as the pivotal moment when she decided to move to New York City almost 15 years ago.
“It was uncomfortable, but it was a move I had to make,” she says. “New York is the place to be if you want to go into theatre.”
The moment she graduated from the University of Michigan in 2000, the then-22-year-old dreamer set her sights on The Big Apple. However, she was in no position to just uproot and leave, so she designed a simple one-year plan: work to save up money and then jump to New York. Thus, she accepted a teaching position at Henry Ford Academy in Detroit.
New York or Bust
“I told the superintendent up front that I was leaving for New York after the school year,” she says. “I told my students, and they supported me. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, Miss M.—that’s what they called me—is abandoning us. They understood and made sure I stuck to my plan and pursued my dream.”
The school year ended, and Morisseau scheduled a trip to New York to go job and apartment hunting with her roommate who was also looking to move to New York. Three days before their scheduled visit, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought the entire country into a state of panic.
Some of Morisseau’s friends and family wanted her to abort moving to New York, but she didn’t budge.
“You have a lot of courage,” she remembers her mother telling her.
Morisseau and her roommate rescheduled their trip for October, and they found a Brownstone apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Morisseau landed a job teaching arts to children at an after-school program. They returned to Detroit and, with the help of Jimmy Keys—Morisseau’s boyfriend and future husband—Morisseau and her roommate packed into a truck an “apartment full of furniture.”
“It’s time,” her father said to her. “You been ready for this.”
Those words gave Morisseau the encouragement she needed to feel confident in her decision.
But arriving in New York didn’t translate to instant success and access to auditions for Broadway productions and business lunches with the grey suits of the theatre industry. Like most aspiring playwrights and actors, she endured the notorious struggling artist phase.
She had to enter and win poetry slam competitions just to help pay the bills. And even though she continued to write on the side, she soon got comfortable in her teaching positions, and when she looked up eight years later, she found that she had gotten too comfortable.
“I went to New York to be a playwright and actress. I was there for almost 10 years, so I began to question whether I was doing it the right way.”
The tide began to turn in 2011 when she joined the Public Theatre’s Emergent Writers Group. In that program is where she developed the concept for the “Detroit Projects,” in which she would write three plays, each dedicated to capturing the experiences of Detroiters in a different decade, respectively. The concept was inspired by August Wilson’s 10-play series called the “Pittsburgh Cycle.”
“I wanted to do for Detroit what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh. A lot of people are writing about Detroit nowadays, but when you’re not from Detroit, it’s hard for you to capture the voice of its people, so I wanted people to hear from [Detroiters] themselves.”
The Public Theatre produced “Detroit ’67” in 2013, and another one of her plays, “Sunset Baby,” was produced. That same year, Morisseau and Jimmy Keys married.
“2013 was a good year,” she says.
Even though Morisseau works in New York and Los Angeles, Detroit is still home. "Detroit '67" was staged here last spring to close the Detroit Public Theatre’s inaugural season at The Max.
She’s working on a screenplay that she plans to film in Detroit with a Detroit-ensemble cast. In fact, she still has the same 313 area code cell number from when she left 15 years ago, a number she insists will never change even if she moved to Alaska or to the moon.
Still, she has no regrets about moving to New York.
“New York definitely wakes you up. It makes you really go for what you want,” she says. “It was uncomfortable, but comfortable people don’t do extraordinary things. I tell people all the time ‘Don’t be afraid to step into your fear. You won’t die. You’ll be OK.’”