1. How did you get your start as a playwright?
Funny thing is, I’ve been a writer since 2nd grade (it all began with what I titled, “The Cabbage Patch Kid Mysteries”- but that’s a story for another time. Ask me about it and I’ll tell you more. lol), but playwriting didn’t come until college. I was studying Acting in the Theatre Department at the University of Michigan, and I was feeling unhappy with the lack of diversity in casting. So I decided to write a play that was to star myself and the other two actresses-of-color in the department at the time. Because the play was the first Black play produced in the Student Theatre for as far back as any of us knew, it quickly became a big event, and brought out a surge of Black students from all fields of study to the Theatre Department. It sparked a huge movement of support from the student body. I began to recognize the urgency in challenging the theatre to represent more under-heard voices. Playwriting became an important calling for me….
2. Can you tell me a little about your writing process–what is new play development like for you?
New play development is about community to me. I treat a play like a child, and the development process is like raising your child in the right community. I truly adore the collaborative process of theatre. It’s frightening and exciting. Usually, I begin writing with an idea or a concept that I want to explore. Almost all of my work is inspired by music. I listen to the music of the time period that I’m writing in, and it helps to inform me of the culture and the language of the time. Then when I’ve completed a draft, I invite my closest and most trusted peeps around a table or around my living room floor, and we hear the baby out loud and discuss. From there, I share the script with trusted mentors and dramaturgs, and seek readings with companies that will help to foster the play and move its development further.
3. What inspired Follow Me to Nellie’s and what are you looking forward to hearing in the reading?
Follow Me To Nellie’s was inspired by my Aunt Nellie Jackson, who was a Madame in Mississippi, and who-during the Civil Rights Movement, would assist the activists with brothel money. I knew her well, and she did many things for many people, but this aspect of her life was one I never knew about and was intrigued by. During the time when Obama was running for President, I was particulary struck with various people’s attitudes about voting and race. I am proud of the progress we’ve shown throughout history, but also concerned with the things that we have not yet healed from or fully confronted. So, I wanted to re-imagine my Aunt’s world within the context of Voting Rights activism, and pay homage to the people at all levels – big and small, who have sacrificed their lives for our right to do something that we often take for granted. I also wanted to recognize that even the most questionable of our society still have the power and the spirit to contribute something beautiful to our social progress.
4. What’s next for you?
I am developing a three-play cycle on my hometown of Detroit, called “The Detroit Projects” which looks at three iconic periods in Detroit’s history: the 1949 jazz hubs at the dawn of urban renewal, the 1967 riots, and the present day foreclosure crisis. DETROIT 67 is my piece on the riots, and is currently being developed in the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. The other two pieces are in early stages of research. The final piece is also being developed with Vicious Bear Theater Company’s Inaugural Development project called “Hometown”. I am very excited to explore this cycle, and hope that it sheds some necessary insight on the often mis-understood Detroit:)
Follow Me to Nellie’s by Dominique Morisseau will be performed July 14-31, 2011 at the Zella Fry Theatre. For more information, visit Premiere Stages.