Dominique Morisseau

Detroit '67 StageNotes

A Conversation with Dominique Morisseau

Dominique MorisseauNorthlight Theatre’s Former Resident Dramaturg, Dr. Kristin Leahey, spoke with Detroit ’67 playwright Dominique Morisseau for Northlight’s 2013 production.

What inspired you to write this play?

Aside from me and my entire family being from Detroit, I really wanted to dive into Detroit’s history and look at the important moments that changed the landscape of our city. And 1967 was definitely one of the more definitive moments. Growing up in Detroit, there is no real intellectual study of our history. There’s not a lot of talk about the “riots”— though many people would tell me not to call them “riots,” they’d tell me to call them “The Great Rebellion…”—So many people don’t grow up learning about The Rebellion. It’s not taught in schools. It’s not being kept alive through conversation. So I went out to learn about it on my own. Additionally, I think what made me really want to start working on this project was a desire to contribute a different narrative about Detroit than what is out there right now. I don’t think the media always depicts our city with fairness. The Detroit I grew up in and understand was built on the backs of these small communities made up of real people. And I wanted to tell a story from that perspective. I wanted to bring the soul of that into the national conversation about Detroit.

It seems like music is a really big part of your life, not to mention the play. Can you talk a bit about the music in the piece?

Music helps to give me a sense of the world within a play. Whenever I write, I use music as the backdrop. Even if I don’t write the songs I’ve been listening to into the play, it still is a huge influence for me. It informs the world, gives me a local color, a language for the period, the attitude and the spirit of what I’m writing. Motown is definitely a no-brainer when it comes to Detroit in the ’60s.

Are there particular songs that were/are a part of your life or your parents’ lives that made it into this play?

My instinct was to look for groups or singers that I wasn’t already hip to. What people listened to on a record in 1967 is not necessarily the song that was the most popular. So filling a play with music brings in another character and lets characters relate to one another through the music. I wanted these characters to listen to music that had a particular message or point of view that spoke to where they were or what they were going through, not just what was the most popular. “My Baby Loves Me” transports me to another world whenever I listen to it. It reminds me of my mother. I don’t know if she used to play it for me all the time or not. But my aunt heard me mention that song and how it inspired me, and she said she used to play it for me when I was growing up and dancing with her. Somewhere subconsciously, that song lives in my mind and in my heart. It’s like this song is family.

Do you still have any family that lives in Detroit?

Oh, all of my family lives in Detroit. All of them. There’s very little empathy for the people who live in Detroit, and there’s such a bleak hopelessness that’s been assigned to their situation. That’s what bothers me most. And the people who say those things really don’t understand our city. And I think when we hear certain things about ourselves over and over we start to believe in them—even the best of us. That’s the power of writing. The media really has the power to manipulate peoples’ beliefs. So I too want to manipulate peoples’ beliefs and get people to start believing in our city again. It’s the city’s music in this story that unifies people of different backgrounds, politics, and worldviews. And I think that when we are presented with stories that can teach us about that kind of heart, we can shrug off the city’s labels and begin to really believe in the people that live there.

Reprinted with permission from Northlight Theatre’s Detroit ’67 Study Guide.