Addressing Civil Unrest Through Theatre
Dominique Morisseau (BFA ’00) has never shied away from tackling hot-button issues. Her three-play cycle, The Detroit Projects, explores key moments in the history of the Motor City, including the 1967 riots (Detroit ’67); gentrification, circa 1949 (Paradise Blue); and the latest exodus of the automotive industry workforce in the late 2000s (Skeleton Crew).
In a more recent work, Blood at the Root (BATR)-which will be produced by the Department of Theatre & Drama in Fall 2017–Morisseau focuses on the true story of a racially charged high school incident and criminal trial that took place in Jena, Louisiana in 2006, sparking massive civil rights protests.
The case involved the beating of a white student at Jena High School by six African American students who said they were retaliating for a racist event at the school: the day after black students dared to sit under a tree that was considered the province of white students-it was even referred to as a “white tree”-three nooses were hung from it.
The six black teenagers, who came to be known as the “Jena Six,” were charged with attempted second-degree murder, igniting protests by community members who considered the charges excessive and racially discriminatory.
In the years that followed, Morisseau was approached by Steve Broadnax, head of the MFA acting program at Penn State University, to write a work for his program that explored race. He felt his students weren’t being given enough opportunity to address relevant social and cultural issues in their work. At first, Morisseau wasn’t sure she wanted to write about racial issues, but the events of Jena stuck with her.
“I started writing Blood at the Root in 2012. I felt there was such an aggressive misrepresentation of these young men from Jena in the criminal justice system,” said Morisseau. “It bothered me that events like this could happen in 2007. Broadnax’s students were a little resistant about a play that dealt with these racial and gender topics, but in 2013 Trayvon Martin was killed, and his death was the beginning of this social and civil unrest.”
BATR has had a life beyond Penn State. The play has been performed in Scotland, Australia, South Africa and at the National Black Theater in New York City. Department of Theatre & Drama Chair Priscilla Lindsay was aware of the play, and applied for a grant from the Michigan Alumni Council to commission and adapt the work for performances at SMTD.
“Dominique is not afraid to meet conflict head on and address important issues of the day,” said Lindsay. “We have a diverse student body that’s growing every year. As a department, we need to provide a platform to present diverse stories that are relevant to this population of students. And issues of social justice are important to all of our students.”
Earlier this semester, Stori Ayers and Tyler Reilly-two of the original cast members from the Penn State production-led a workshop for SMTD students. Ayers, for whom the role of Raylynn was written, will direct the play at SMTD. She appreciates being on the other side of the table, working closely with SMTD’s actors to share her perspective as a former actor in the play.
“Dominique uses a historical event as a platform to develop the fictitious story for Blood at the Root,” said Ayers. “The story’s specificity creates a universality that charges the audience with the social responsibility of dealing with ‘the other’ in order to create change. I’m hoping that living in the world of this play challenges the actors to examine their own beliefs around class, race, sexuality, and the American justice system.”
As a student at U-M, Morisseau sought out thought-provoking and significant works that would resonate with a multitude of different voices and perspectives.
“At Michigan, I was starving for impactful work, and in my freshman year we received a work from guest artist Michele Shay,” said Morisseau. “It was life-affirming to work with her and has been part of my journey of moving forward and giving back, which is something I stand for in my art.”
Guest artists such as Shay, and professors including the late Glenda Dickerson and the recently retired OyamO, left indelible marks on Morisseau as she began to develop her craft. Dickerson helped Morisseau strengthen her voice and navigate her way through a vast range of literature, while OyamO nurtured her voice, shaping her into the playwright she’s become. She also took advantage of Basement Arts, the student-run performing arts organization.
“Basement Arts empowered me to put my own work up and explore my own voice,” said Morisseau. “Those experiences have been invaluable for me, and created the mark of the woman I was going to become: a playwright, an activist, an actress in an industry where I’m moving things forward by my own volition. SMTD actively gives students a chance to explore their craft themselves, which was remarkable for me.”
Morisseau’s voice reverberates loud and clear, and has earned her multiple awards and accolades. She has won the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, an Obie Award, the Steinberg Playwright Award, the Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association, the Stavis Playwriting Award, SMTD’s Emerging Artist Award, and two NAACP Image Awards; she was also honored by the city of Detroit with a Spirit of Detroit award.
And in 2014, she received the esteemed Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama for Detroit ’67. The award is given annually by Columbia University for “a new play or musical of merit that enlists theatre’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.”
Morisseau has a knack for making the past relevant to modern-day issues. “My play about the Detroit riots has become a contemporary play; my play about gentrification has become one of my most contemporary plays…all these plays that I’ve written about past times actually feel like they are very current,” said Morisseau. “With Blood at the Root, I hope students will find the power that theatre has for social justice, and will see that theatre can do great things in getting society to move forward. And I want them to not be afraid to explore important topics.”
Morisseau continually pushes herself into new territory and has an incredible roster of projects lined up. She is embarking on her third season as a writer for the Showtime series Shameless, and her new play, Pipeline, will be produced at Lincoln Center this summer.
In August, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California will premiere Ain’t Too Proud-The Temptations, a new musical about the life and times of the beloved Motown group. Morriseau wrote the musical’s book-a first for her. She has also been named the Residency Five Playwright at the Signature Theatre in NYC for 2017-18, which guarantees three world premiere productions of her work over the course of five years.
With her career is in such high gear, it’s a special time to have one of Morriseau’s works produced at her alma mater, and she is excited to empower and motivate SMTD students. “The ultimate thing I want any artist to take forward is a clarity about the type of artist they want to be. In my journey, I discovered myself at Michigan, and that is what turned me into an active playwright and made me feel very full in my career.”
By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.