“The Soul of This Place”: Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit
Playwright Dominique Morisseau accepts the 2017 Samuel French Award for Impact and Activism. Source: Breaking Character Journals.
From bop performances in a renowned jazz club and illicit parties hosted in a basement on 12th street, to card games behind the boss’ back in the breakroom of an auto-stamping plant, playwright Dominique Morisseau tells the story of Detroit across three plays that comprise The Detroit Project. Morisseau, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, describes a social history of rising “the hell up” while going underground. The trilogy has rightfully been compared to August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle in the way the plays ambitiously set out to tell the intergenerational story of each playwright’s hometown. However, unlike Wilson who wrote a play taking place in each decade of the twentieth century, Morisseau sets each play during one of three pivotal moments in the history of Detroit: the beginnings of urban renewal in the 1950s, the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the contemporary economic and infrastructural crisis that accompanies a major decline in the auto industry. Through her use of stage directions, set descriptions, and rhythmic banter that shifts between playful, romantic, and tragic, Morisseau writes in a continuum of spaces that resonates with the presence of Detroit’s Black community and the forces of state and industry that have historically shaped it.
Paradise Blue, the award-winning play that opens the trilogy, is set in the same year as the notorious Housing Act of 1949 that would fuel the “urban renewal” campaign of slum clearance in major cities across the United States. The play centers on the fate of Paradise Club, owned by a trumpet player called Blue. The club is in the famous jazz town of Paradise Valley at the heart of Black Bottom, a neighborhood branded with the label “blighted,” bearing testimony to the line made famous by James Baldwin: urban renewal “means negro removal.” Paradise Blue follows members of a community on the verge of displacement and dispossession by “urban renewal” developers. Individuals in this community have very different plans for the future of the club and, by extension, all of the neighborhood. For Blue, the headstrong club owner and leading trumpet soloist, Paradise Valley and the community it sustains represents a legacy of frustrated ambitions, violence, and poverty that he desperately wants to leave behind. He is haunted by the memory and madness of his father, who killed his mother in a violent fit of anger over the glass-ceiling limitations of Black life. To escape his memories and his frustrations, Blue is more than happy to sell the place to private developers rather than to those within his own social group. The play thus ends on a note of desperation, betrayal, and violence as all the other businesses in Paradise Valley start selling out and the main characters start to turn on each other, leading to a tragic ending in which Blue is shot.
The second play in the trilogy is Detroit ’67, winner of the 2014 Sky Cooper American Play Prize. It picks up eighteen years after Paradise Blue, in a basement on 12th street long after Black Bottom was demolished. The play is set in the days leading up to the notorious Detroit riots of 1967 that pit the Black working-class community of Detroit against both federal troops and the National Guard as well as local police. This play follows members of this community, no longer thriving in the socio-economic haven of Black Bottom, now forced “underground,” by rampant threats of unemployment in a racist job market, and constantly harassed by a police unit that patrols the lower income communities like a hunting ground. The Big Four, as the notorious police crime unit was called, was responsible for breaking up illicit parties like those hosted by Chelle and Lank, the sister and brother who host parties to pay off their deceased parents’ house and to put Chelle’s son through school at the Tuskegee Institute. Like Paradise Blue, this play centers on opposing debates concerning the future of Black Detroit—debates symbolized by Chelle’s attachment to the basement setting of the play as a home space (and an economic means to support her son) and Lank’s investment in it as a precursor to the literally and figuratively above-ground nightclub he has bought behind Chelle’s back, using their inheritance. Unfortunately, Lank’s plans are nearly toppled as the social tension building up on and offstage erupts into a riot after the police raid another illicit nightclub.
. . . Morisseau sets each play during one of three pivotal moments in the history of Detroit: the beginnings of urban renewal in the 1950s, the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the contemporary economic and infrastructural crisis . . .
The final play in The Detroit Project, Skeleton Crew, takes us to the contemporary moment of Detroit, after decades of “white flight” to the suburbs, subsequent disinvestment in the city, and massive decline of the auto industry, which has been the city’s economic backbone since the Ford Motor Company opened there in 1903. Like the previous two plays, Skeleton Crew centers on the rising social tensions of a Black working- class community, leading up to a socio-economic upheaval—in this case, the closing of an auto-stamping plant. However, unlike the previous two plays, the central debate in Skeleton Crew has less to do with the investment of economic capital as with the social capital of the four central characters. Reggie, the plant foreman, has been instructed not to share news of the plant-closing until the company has gotten its affairs in order and extracted as much value as it can from its workforce. He finds himself caught between his own socio-economic ambitions (including a house he is still paying off) and the shared history that binds him to his fellow employees: Faye, the union rep, has been rejected by her son because she is a lesbian; she treats Reggie like a surrogate son, frequently giving him—and the others—the tough love they need. Shanita is the industrious mother-tobe who takes pride in her work and is on good terms with both the union and management, and finally, there is Dez, the rule-breaking “hustler” who is always packing (even at work) and is a few write-ups short of being fired.
. . . the intent [of Morisseau’s work] is . . . to make various forms of agency—especially “Black women’s agency”—visible.
All three plays in the series articulate the socio-political and economic struggles of Detroit’s Black community. But The Detroit Project is neither about “focusing on oppression,” nor even entirely about organizing against it. As Morisseau has said about her other work, the intent is also to make various forms of agency—especially “Black women’s agency”—visible. Aside from a reference in Detroit ’67 to “colored men startin’ to organize,” a few references to the United Auto Workers in Skeleton Crew, and—also in Skeleton Crew—the dilemma of a shop steward, these plays are neither a dramatization of organized labor and revolt nor a pure social critique. Rather, The Detroit Project asks what are the social and economic conditions necessary for intimacy, community, performance, art, and various forms of freedom? The trilogy also highlights the material and social markers of struggle, exploitation, and betrayal that have both countered and, in many ways, shaped these forms of agency. Above all, the morally ambiguous situations in these plays allow us to interrogate the conditions of political solidarity and organization among the Black community of Detroit, even if we only partially see it onstage.
The manner in which Morisseau explores these questions is as much about making agency visible as it is about the agents themselves. Thus, the various forms of agency Morisseau interrogates are manifested in the characters’ central debates, concerning the future and significance of the social settings that carry over between plays—spaces that are interpreted from different social and economic perspectives, at different levels from the individual to the community.
In these plays, there are people with very different economic and social interests, which either pit them against one another or bind them together. Blue, in the first play, represents the most extreme example of capitalist individualism and opportunism, which influences his decision to literally “sell out.” As a member of the rising economic class of successful businessmen in Paradise Valley, he embodies the racialist ethos behind the project of “clearin’ up the slums. Gettin’ rid of the blight in the city. Some of these places are a real eyesore.” He says, “Make all our spots look run-down. I hope he [the mayor] get rid of it good and send them low-class niggers back to the outskirts of the city so that the rest of us can finally move on up.”
. . . The Detroit Project asks what are the social and economic conditions necessary for intimacy, community, performance, art, and various forms of freedom?
Indifferent to the histories of urban segregation and ghettoization that created the slums of this racial enclave in the first place, Blue’s only concern is making money and moving up in the world despite racism—and he is not afraid to exploit the labor of musicians in his club or of his own love interest, Pumpkin, to get there.
On the other end of the spectrum are those characters who view economic investment in social space as essential for the legal recognition and socio-economic betterment of the Black community. For characters like P-Sam (Percussion Sam), the drummer in Blue’s band, Paradise Valley provides a social and economic haven where he “can be a percussion man befo’ bein’ colored.” In this regard, he shares both the ambitions and sentiments of Silver, although they eventually become rivals. Checking all the boxes of the dangerous woman, Silver arrives with a record player, a gun, and, more than enough money from her mysteriously late husband to eventually try and buy the bar: “Got Negroes over here runnin’ everything and not havin’ to answer to nobody but each other. You let this Black Bottom go into the wrong hands, and the soul of this place ain’t never gonna forgive you,” she says.
With Black Bottom gone into the wrong hands, we find Silver and P-Sam’s economic dream picked up in Detroit ’67 by Lank, who throws parties not just as a means to get by, but as a way to provide a space of escape and diversion for his community. Lank and his friend and co-investor, Sly, decide to buy a bar up for sale on Detroit’s 12th Street. Lank sees ownership of such an establishment as an opportunity not only to go legit and leave hosting parties in a basement behind, but also as a means to essentially transform Detroit into what Black Bottom once was and could have been: “I’m tellin’ you, we get a chance to get above ground, Detroit’ll be a Mecca,” Lank says. He believes the only way forward is to invest his and his sister Chelle’s inheritance in a licensed club so that “we get a chance to get above ground.” When put in conversation, the three plays tell us that the interrelated fight against racism, classism, and patriarchy can only succeed when fought collectively. The breakdown in solidarity that sends everyone on the lookout for themselves—Blue’s bourgeois individualism and adopted racism and Silver’s insistence on bidding against P-Sam for the nightclub—plays a key role in the downfall of Paradise Valley. In the case of Skeleton Crew, Morisseau explicitly employs the union as a symbol to advocate for worker solidarity and visibility. Furthermore, in some ways, the character of Blue is redeemed in Skeleton Crew through Reggie, who makes a decision to side with his workers and help them prepare for the closure of their factory instead of following corporate orders and firing Dez and Faye. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these plays are not a one-dimensional dramatization of class or anti-racialist struggle. They explore the limits of agency at the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality.
This last point brings us to another common theme that puts the Detroit plays into conversation with one another: Morisseau foregrounds the demarginalization of the women whose
labor creates and sustains the social spaces in all three plays. In Paradise Blue, there is Pumpkin–Blue’s “Simple, sweet”—whom Blue overworks as a cook and maid and whom he forces to be a singer when he needs one. Where Blue and others see blight, Pumpkin sees a community willing to help each other get by. Chelle in Detroit ’67 seems to share Pumpkin’s view but on a more individual level. She sees the basement she shares with Lank not simply as a basement and a temporary means of getting quick cash, but as a sentimental space marked with memories that make it home.
In Paradise Blue . . . Faye breaks the rules. She smokes inside and steals from the job. But . . ., she also makes the workplace feel like home . . .
In the case of Skeleton Crew, it is Faye who serves as a hybrid of the maternal and transgressive woman. She is a jaded woman in her mid-to-late fifties,” who is not buffeted about by whims of the men around her. She is tough, with “a lifetime of dirt beneath her nails.” She seems to embody the wisdom and resilience of the Black women in the previous two plays: In Detroit ’67, it is the “loving heart beneath [Chelle’s] pride.” In Paradise Blue, it is the final courage Pumpkin musters to take Silver’s gun, take control, and remain in a community she regards as home. Faye breaks the rules. She smokes inside and steals from the job. But, like Pumpkin and Chelle, she also makes the workplace feel like home, brewing a pot of coffee each morning and playing cards with Dez and others when the foreman is not around. Once it is revealed that Faye has been living in the breakroom since losing her house, we can see this setting as a domestic space.
In many ways, however, Faye also embodies the mystery, charm, and grit of Silver, but, in Faye, these characteristics seem to have grown heavy with age, experience, and struggle.
Comparing the similarities and differences between the character dynamics in each play, we see, on the one hand, a kind of intertextual development of woman’s agency. On the other hand, we see a kind of intergenerational continuum of intimate, safe spaces, made possible by these women and their different forms of survival and resistance. (Both Patricia Hill Collins and Farah Jasmine Griffin, pioneers in African-American as well as gender and sexuality studies, have examined the archetypal safe spaces of African-American social and cultural life.) The Detroit plays revolve around spaces in which—yes—there exist extensions of oppressive politics, but they are also places in which there can be laughter, healing, debate, and refuge.
In a broader sense, these plays are important today in the contexts of Detroit and other cities with similar political histories of “urban renewal” and racially segregated populations facing similar economic crises. Morisseau gives us the tools to experience and interpret Detroit not just from the top-down perspective of urban planners, industrialists, and aspiring (white) suburbanites—instead, one experiences the varied perspectives of those who grew up and continue to work there as they carry on a long urban struggle. By the end of a comparative reading/viewing of the plays, one no longer sees only highways when looking at I-375 but the ghosts of Paradise Valley and the bulldozed ambitions of a Black utopia. When walking down 12th street, one hears the subterranean parties threatened by the tanks rumbling as they do outside of Chelle and Lank’s basement. Finally, when contemplating the abandoned factories of auto-plants that went under, one begins to hear, see, and feel at once the rhythm and humming of an environment that could be both hostile and home to those left behind to pick up the pieces of Detroit.
Morisseau’s devotion to making the agency of women visible does not stop on the page or the stage. She showed her professional integrity when she canceled a production of Paradise Blue at Geffen Play House in Los Angeles in solidarity with Black women in the production who had experienced verbal abuse: In a New York Times interview, she said,
What made me feel even more empowered in this moment is that I am now visible . . . I will not write about Black women being harmed and learning to take agency for themselves . . . I’m not going to have that onstage and the opposite happening for them offstage.
1. Jesse Green, “Review: In ‘Skeleton Crew,’ Making Quick Work of Hard Labor,” The New York Times, January 26, 2022, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/theater/skeleton-crew-review.html.
2. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, “Urban Renewal . . .” and “. . . Means Negro Removal,” in Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It, ed. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Carlos F. Peterson and Mary Travis Bassett (New York: New Village Press, 2016), 52-100.
3. American Archive of Public Broadcasting, (WGBH Educational Foundation), available at https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-0v89g5gf5r.
4. Green, “Review.”
5. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Who Set You Flowin’? The African-American Migration Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 8.
6. Alexis Soloski, “Dominique Morisseau Asks: ‘What Does Freedom Look Like Now?’” The New York Times, March 10, 2022, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/10/theater/dominique-morisseau-confederates-interview.html.
Tyler Grand Pre is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University interested in the intersections of language, translation, and space in
African-American and African-diasporic literature and culture. His research examines how different artists, writers, and architects engage and deconstruct the infrastructure of race.
1 thought on ““The Soul of This Place”: Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit”
I just finished the last of the trilogy plays today. Thank you for this article and breakdown! It was delightful and enlightening to read.
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