Along the Road to SKELETON CREW
Skeleton Crew, the third and final play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy, began performances last week in its world premier at The Atlantic Theater Company. The play, which examines the 2008 collapse of the auto industry and its impact on black workers, unmistakably embodies Dominique’s ambitious vision for theater and society and offers both entertainment and a new awareness of race, gender, and class in contemporary America. The story cracks open tough issues that deeply concern many Americans these days, and the process Dominique has undertaken to develop her play and bring it the New York stage says as much about her values and ideals and it does about the play’s visceral impact on very diverse audiences.
What fascinates me the most about playwrights is their journeys—how they came to playwriting and what keeps them committed to this hard and bumpy road. I first met Dominique in 2008, when playwright Katori Hall invited her to be an actor in one of The Lark's generative programs, The Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop. At that time, Dominique was an actor, poet, spoken-word artist, and arts educator who had not fully begun her transition to playwriting. Dominique turned out to be a phenomenal fit for the Workshop program. She brought energy and intelligence into the room. Her sense of fun was distinguished by easy and infectious laughter. She was a fantastic “cold reader,” who made strong and exciting choices each time she picked up a new scene. She was rigorous in responding to the work, engaged in its politics and intellectual integrity, probing for truthfulness and dramatic impact, yet always respectful of the authors’ work. She was a chameleon: she could think like a writer, an actor, or an audience member and inhabit any character she was assigned. Playwrights loved working with Dominique and began to write scenes just to hear her read them.
One of the plays that Dominique helped to develop in the Workshop was The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, a two-hander about Dr. Martin Luther King and a fictional chambermaid (performed by Dominique) set in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel on the night before Dr. King was shot. Katori wrote this play for Dominique, and it was a joy to hear each new scene, fresh from the printer, week after week. Dominique was brilliant in the role, tapping into the play’s pain, infusing it with humor, mining it for humanity and making it her own. The play would not have been the same without her contributions.
A few years later, The Mountaintop moved to Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as the chambermaid. Something fundamental shifted in Dominique’s sense of herself as an artist when the play she had been so instrumental in developing moved forward without her. She never expressed bitterness, only the opposite. However, she became aware, as never before, that the channel for African American women’s voices in this country was far too narrow and she became determined to change the situation. That was when Dominique the playwright was born.
Dominique’s voice soon emerged as a profound and poetic force in the field and her work quickly found alignment at The Lark. In 2011 she started her trilogy of plays about three turning points in Detroit’s history, with a specific focus on race and power. Her first play in this series, Detroit ‘67, about the 1967 race riots, was one of eight plays chosen (from 800 submissions that year) for our annual Playwrights’ Week program. Through an altogether separate nomination process that same year, Dominique was invited back into The Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop program, this time as a writer, where she drafted three new plays that year, including Skeleton Crew. In 2012, through a third writer selection process at The Lark, Dominique was awarded the Playwrights of New York (“PoNY”) Fellowship that had helped launch Katori Hall’s career four years earlier.
Dominique’s community is also expanding globally, resulting in new and different kinds of conversations. Last year, for instance, she traveled to Moscow with me and two other playwrights (Arthur Kopit and Olivia Dufault) to translate their plays into Russian. Dominique worked on a translation of Skeleton Crew with Russian actors, writers and directors, and the play was performed at the end of the residency for an enthusiastic and packed house. The trip was extraordinary, but it was also very difficult. The Russian economy was in flux and artists seemed reluctant to discuss social issues. In particular, there seemed to be friction between people of different ethnicities—which came up regularly in conversations about relationships between Russia and former Soviet States like Ukraine as well as in discussions about cultural diversity within Moscow. Under these circumstances, Dominique’s play about the plight of factory workers facing economic collapse during the 2008 fiscal crisis was the perfect storm. Coincidentally, the Russian playwright who translated Skeleton Crew came from a Russian city famous for its automobile factories, nicknamed “Russian Detroit”; she immediately understood the challenges of the factory workers in the play and felt an immediate kinship with Dominique. Russian artists and audiences found the play exciting and accessible on a number of levels, as entertainment and in the way it treats such themes as global economics, wealth disparity, and job loss.
Although the Russians were curious about African American culture on a superficial level, especially the kind of commercialized hip-hop culture that shows America as violent and decadent, it was strangely
difficult at first to engage in serious conversations about race, violence, and marginalization. There seemed to be a lack of shared vocabulary with which to talk about race and cultural difference, although it was clearly a shared experience. This incongruity in talking about race and difference was extremely painful to Dominique in rehearsals, in talk-backs, on the street where people touched her hair and stared, and in interviews where people projected their own ideas about her experience as an American and an African American without really listening to what she had to say. It was, frankly, traumatic.
Nevertheless, Dominique was relentless in making sure that her collaborators understood the world she wrote about and in pointing out when they made wrong assumptions. She shared books, film footage and stories from her own life. These conversations seemed at first to make people feel awkward and frightened in a very different way than race conversations do in the United States, and throughout the residency we struggled to understand why this was the case. As I think back now on our visit, and consider why this experience was ultimately so powerful for Dominique and our Russian counterparts, I think I can identify two factors at play. The first is that good theater audiences, and, specifically, Russian audiences (who may be the savviest in the world), know the “real thing” when they see it. Dominique's work, which clearly fits this bill, both engages audiences through a strong narrative but serves consistently as its own metaphor for deeper social conditions and struggles. The Russians not only recognized the pain of oppression and inequity from their own lives, they were excited by the simple genius of its form and presentation. This connection with Russian audiences was something for which Dominique could never have prepared, but it happened nonetheless. The second factor that occurred to me was entirely the result of Dominique’s gritty resolve to communicate and be understood. In the spirit of cultural exchange, and, even more, in the spirit of theater, Dominique continued to foster open dialogue. It was this conversation that eventually connected the metaphorical fable of Skeleton Crew to the particular cultural and historical context of our Russian hosts. When this happened, the sky opened.
It seems to me that wherever Dominique goes these days, people become engaged in meaningful discussions about shared experiences, the skies open, and new possibilities for joy and understanding are revealed. It takes special vision and courage for an artist to choose a path, but the real test is in summoning the commitment, resourcefulness, compassion, love and persuasive abilities that are required to get us all walking together in the same direction and to keep on moving until we arrive in a better place. I know that the idea of “community” means more to Dominique than just about anything else in the world. Her dedication to this idea is manifest in her plays, in how she collaborates with her peers, in her love of friends and their love for her, in her impact on students, her respect for her family and heritage, her encounters with audiences, and in her belief in the power of individual voices to make positive change in the world.
If you know her work, I’m sure that you are already planning to see Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater. If you have yet to experience Dominique's theatrical imagination, I am excited for your first encounter with this extraordinary voice!