Back during rehearsals for Sunset Baby, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with playwright Dominique Morisseau (DM) about the inspiration of history, using her voice as an artist, plans for her Detroit Cycle, and more.
(PJP) One of the many reasons TimeLine has been so drawn to your writing is because your plays explore history in such provocative and personal ways. What draws you toward historical stories and issues?
The past is everything about what the future can become.
(DM) I like to understand things that come before me that have a strong impact on my life and upbringing. I like knowing untold histories, things that are a part of my fabric and the fabric of my community, that inform our social structure. My character Damon says “the past is bullshit, only thing that matters is the present.” While I find that a valid point from his point of view, that’s almost the antithesis of what I truly believe. The past is everything about what the future can become. I want to bring it out and learn from it in the most interesting and human ways possible.
(PJP) What was your inspiration for Sunset Baby?
(DM) Several things that are listed in print in the opening of my published play. 1) A picture my father took of me as a baby sitting in the sunset (the picture described in the play is it). 2) Tupac Shakur. He is the child of revolutionaries and I always wanted to know how someone raised by such forward thinking people could be so brilliant and destructive at the same time. And 3) The various freedom fighters of the ‘60s and ‘70s and my curiosity of the things they lost to try to gain the world.
(PJP) Much of this play deals with the relationship between father and daughter—something that is surprisingly under-explored in comparison to the number of father/son plays or even mother/daughter plays. What led you to make this relationship so central to your play?
(DM) I have a very close and complex relationship with my father. I’m a daddy’s girl and a true reflection of my old man, for better or worse. I recognize the complexities and the love and fight that can exist between a father and a daughter. There is a likeness between the two that is not often acknowledged but I am living this likeness, so I am intrigued to explore it in my work.
(PJP) Among other things, Sunset Baby explores generational shifts in activism. And even since the play premiered in 2013, we’ve seen yet another wave of activism with the emergence of Black Lives Matter. I’m curious if you view the play any differently than before, in light of the ongoing shifts in activism?
(DM) I do. I realize that things continue forward and we keep repeating history until we settle the wounds. There is a strong connection that I’m only just discovering around the Black Liberation Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. We are continuing to respond to police violence and disenfranchisement of Black and Brown people as is evidenced in Ferguson and Baltimore and New York and Chicago. I never wanted this play to be about current issues. I was hoping it could be an examination of the past. But the past is strangely becoming the present again. Repeating history until we settle the wounds ….
(PJP) I read an article in The New York Times about the ways that Black Lives Matter is impacting the upcoming election, and I was struck by a quote from Allen Kwabena Frimpong, an organizer with the New York chapter, who said: “There’s nothing wrong with being decentralized and dispersed. The problem is being disconnected. If we are going to build political power, we have to build connections.” It stuck out to me because your play, to me, beautifully examines the challenges of building (or repairing) connections. What’s your take on this quote?
(DM) I think it’s brilliant. I might counter that there is great issue with being decentralized and dispersed. That can be damaging to a movement and a people, but mostly because it allows us to become disconnected. So I think Allen is pretty great about highlighting that connection between generations, agendas, socioeconomic status, etc. Standing on our common ground is how we make effective and positive change happen collectively.
(PJP) I’ve read other interviews with you where you’ve eloquently discussed your role in a movement—as part of a revolution of African American playwrights who are helping to change the face (and topics) of the American theatre. Can you discuss what you think your voice is in this ongoing evolution?
The only way to remind us of our collective humanity is to keep pushing for more stories from the disenfranchised to have equal voice and support socially as those in positions of privilege.
(DM) Right now I’m just aware that my job is to speak the truth of my experience and my corner of the world. I can’t be afraid of that truth or mute it in any way, even as it becomes confronting for others or exposing of myself. The only way to remind us of our collective humanity is to keep pushing for more stories from the disenfranchised to have equal voice and support socially as those in positions of privilege. Balance of storytelling is all of our responsibility because we all ultimately benefit from it.
(PJP) Nina Simone’s life and music is clearly a source of inspiration in this play. What has her music and legacy meant to you?
(DM) As of late, in light of my recent outspokenness in my industry, Nina has become even more of an inspiration to me. She gives me power and liberation in her music and in her legacy of standing up to the world’s injustice and defining her art by her passion for justice. I also worry about things as I learned through her documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? that she was tortured by the ostracizing that happened to her as a result of her firm political beliefs. I recognize how much we can damage artists by leaving them on the front lines to take all of the critical bullets for us, and I try to move into a new model of social unity and healing for myself as an artist as a result of her example.
(PJP) Her music has always felt timeless, yet we seem to be in the midst of a particular resurgence of attention on her, with two new documentaries and a new tribute album in the last year. Why do you think the time is right for this renewed spotlight on her?
(DM) Because we are upon those times again, and I believe our generation is looking for its new Nina Simones.
(PJP) Three of your plays—Detroit ’67, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew—all deal with your hometown of Detroit, each in a different decade. As someone who grew up just outside the city and went to high school a few blocks from where you lived, I share your fascination and love for this town. What draws you to write about it, and can I hope that you’ll do for Detroit what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh by continuing to explore different eras through the lens of the city’s social and political issues?
(DM) Absolutely. In fact, what August did for Pittsburgh and what Pearl Cleage did for black women in her work is what greatly inspires me in my Detroit cycle. It’s what I know and for me it is about humanizing a people that have been dehumanized in our media and social narrative.
(PJP) You’re also an actress. How does that work inform and infuse your playwriting, and vice versa?
(DM) I tend to write characters that I think I’d want to play. Not that I ever really have a desire to play them myself, but I think about what the characters want and what motivates their actions because I know that is what drives a play for an actor. And ultimately, character relationships and desires drive the story-building for a playwright.
(PJP) I know that you recently got your first taste of writing for television. Can you discuss what you were working on and how your experience was in that different world?
(DM) I served as Story Editor for Season 6 of Showtime’s hit show, Shameless. It was a fascinating experience for me because I could rely on some of my playwriting sensibilities with dialogue and intention and stakes, but I had to learn a more concise and focused active language, and also how to keep scenes more physically active. I often forgot that we’re not just on a stage that is static. That the camera will be following these characters wherever I place them. It’s a completely different world and the collaborative writing makes it a huge switch from the singular act of writing a play.
(PJP) With so many different opportunities, either acting, or writing for theatre or TV, how do you decide what projects to pursue?
When I know I can bring value, dignity, integrity, honor, passion, fight, and humor to a story because I understand its world or its people, I am usually all in.
(DM) I typically pursue what moves or stirs my soul. Not always, but mostly. I have to find my way into a show or a story. If I can’t find my way in, if some part of it doesn’t connect with my passion or curiosity, or if I simply don’t connect to the vision or am not moved by the subject, I can’t participate in it. And it isn’t that I think it is less valuable, I just don’t imagine bringing any additional value to it myself. When I know I can bring value, dignity, integrity, honor, passion, fight, and humor to a story because I understand its world or its people, I am usually all in.