Dominique Morisseau asks: “What does freedom look like now?

In 2016, Penumbra Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Dominique Morrisseau write a play as part of American Revolu...


In 2016, Penumbra Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Dominique Morrisseau write a play as part of American Revolutions: The Cycle of United States History. The mandate: to create a work on the black experience of the civil war.

Morisseau had a question: “What were black women doing?

“Confederates”, his new play at the Signature Theatre, is an answer. Switching between the present day and the 1860s, the play – now in preview, premiering March 27 – follows Sandra, a superstar academic played by Michelle Wilson, and Sara (Kristolyn Lloyd), a slave who spys for the Union army. . If the title evokes the Confederation, it also teases a bond between the two women.

“That’s what it means to be in this institution,” says Sandra. “Knowing deep down that there will never be justice for you here.”

Sara echoes him: “That’s what it means to be in a particular institution. Under his boot, everyone is your enemy.

Even as “Confederates” evokes dramatic works as varied as the postmodern drama of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “An Octoon”, The devastating tragedy of Adrienne Kennedy “The Ohio State Murders” and the academic double of David Mamet “Oleanna” Morisseau renders each scene in his distinctive empathetic and tragicomic style.

Rather than focusing on oppression, the play explores the agency of black women and the different forms that liberation can take from one era to the next.

“Freeing yourself in the past is just freeing yourself,” Morisseau said. “Like, you are literally in bondage. Breaking free in the present is a very different thing. What does freedom look like now? »

Morisseau was speaking from an apartment in Midtown Manhattan near the Signature and Samuel J. Friedman theaters on Broadway, where his play “Skeleton Crew”, part of a recently wrapped trilogy of works set in his native Detroit. Her 15-month-old son took a nap in the next room.

During a 90-minute video call, she discussed “Confederates,” which will also premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August, as well as microaggressions, macroaggressions and what empowerment looks like to her. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

In “Confederates”, Sandra and Sara live about 160 years apart. What joins them?

They are united in the history of black women fighting for freedom. They are united to be the most socially consumable.

Sandra, the teacher, is prone to frequent microaggressions. For Sara, the female slave, the danger is physical and more obvious. Do you understand that these threats are related?

The kind of racism Sara experiences – you could be hanged, you could be dragged, you could be murdered – that overt racism is not what most people experience as racism. There is the kind of racism that breaks the body, that attacks the body. Then there is the other kind that kills the mind. The one I most often engage with is the latter. But the micro always leads to the macro. Microaggressions lead to aggressive actions.

Ultimately, all of these are harmful and deadly.

In your research, did you find many examples of black women spying for the Union?

I didn’t find many examples. I would find small pieces. These kinds of stories are under-told. But they tell me that we were not passive. We have never been passive.

You have written plays set in the 1940sthe 1950sthe 1960sthe ’00s. Did you know you would end up writing about the 1860s?

I never thought of that, to be honest. When I was approached to write specifically about this era, I thought to myself, I don’t just want to write about slavery. That’s not what interests me. I am, however, interested in post-traumatic slave syndrome, the phrase coined by Dr. Joy DeGruy, which is the impact of being descendants of slaves and the traumas that have occurred since, without treatment or The healing.

When you accepted the commission, were there certain stories or stereotypes that you wanted to avoid?

I didn’t want to show defeat or agreement with the enslaved culture. There is no agreement.

As an undergraduate, did you experience institutional racism?

My experience at school taught me that no one is there to protect me. There is no agency for me here. I’ll have to do for myself at school, if I want to not be crushed, if I want to see myself as an artist.

Theater can also be a racist space. I remember one essay you wrote in 2015 about white privilege, with the title: “Why I almost slapped a theater patron, and what it says about our theaters”. Has the theater changed since then?

I have actively worked to change this culture at least around my own work. I have a playwright’s rules of engagement insert that I put in the program for every show I do. Because I was policed ​​for my own laugh. [The insert includes instructions such as, “You are allowed to laugh audibly” and “This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”]

I’ve seen attempts to diversify boards, to have greater reach with donors. Then there’s the bottom-up approach: I’d like to see more artists take more power over themselves and their art. There is a culture of silence that has been perpetuated. There’s this sense of scalability that artists have. For example, you can’t talk, because then you won’t have a job. And it’s crazy.

At the end of last year, you spoke. You took your play “Paradise Blue” out of the Geffen Playhouse, saying that the black women who worked on the show had been “verbally abused and diminished.” What enabled you to do this?

I have always been an activist. By nature, I’ve never been OK with things that are wrong. What made me feel even more empowered right now is that I am now visible. And there are young artists watching me, watching me. I try to elevate these artists. So there is no chance in hell that I could see harmful behavior happening and being irresponsible. I’m not going to write about black women who have been hurt and learned to take their agency – that’s what ‘Paradise Blue’ is about – I’m not going to have that on stage and vice versa perform for them offstage.

I’m not trying to create a culture where people pull their plays. It’s one of the hardest decisions you should have to make as a playwright. It was brutal. It was exhausting for me. I never want to have to do that again.

Before the pandemic, you made your Broadway debut writing the book Ain’t Too Proud. Did it change anything for you?

“Not Too Proud” arrived, a MacArthur happened, a lot of things happened, just at the same time. It gave me more confidence in myself as an artist coming from institutions. I don’t know if I’m a safe bet. I don’t think it’s a safe bet. But I’m worthy of a bet in general. I’m quite an interesting voice. I’m definitely being asked to write more musicals.

And what did it mean to move ‘Skeleton Crew’ to Broadway?

With Broadway comes more resources behind your work. I remember when I first saw “Ain’t Too Proud” I was like, everyone deserves all those resources behind their imagination, just once in a lifetime. To be able to get it twice in my life is amazing.

“Skeleton Crew” will always be one of my favorites because I know where it comes from. I know where I was when I wrote it and I know who I wrote it for. The most important thing for me as a Detroiter is to make Detroit visible. We spent the Detroit evening on Broadway. It was like a family reunion up there. It was the most strait-laced behavior I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It was epic.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Dominique Morisseau asks: “What does freedom look like now?
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