Morrisseau’s Musical Notations
By Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Production Dramaturg
Many years ago, when penning his 1963 book Blues People, the provocateur poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones) reflected on the indivisible nature of African American music and history. Musing that you could ostensibly “go from one to the other, actually from the inside to the outside, or reverse, and be talking about the same things” Baraka was struck by the revelation that “the music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music.”
Many dramatists, past and present, can boast of work that breathes vibrant truth into Baraka’s musical maxim (August Wilson readily comes to mind). However, no one of late has refreshed this notion or bestowed it with quite the same distinctive fervor as Dominique Morisseau does with her unique triumvirate known as The Detroit Project. Morisseau designed each play within the trilogy with a specific “soundtrack” in mind; the musical motifs keenly reflecting each play’s time, place, and given circumstances.
The trilogy begins with Paradise Blue. Set in 1949 within Detroit’s now-faded Blackbottom neighborhood, Paradise Blue dramatizes the story of a nightclub owner who struggles against the gentrifying forces that aim to “renew” his community. As the annals of history reveal, Blackbottom birthed an effervescent jazz scene that was cultivated by legendary artists such as Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie. In making Blackbottom the setting for her play, Morisseau concurrently acknowledges the history of her native city’s ever-changing landscape while also paying homage to Detroit’s rich musical heritage.
Whereas the backdrop of Blackbottom reminds us of Detroit’s musical roots, Detroit ’67, the next play in the sequence, reignites the more popular knowledge that the “Motor City” is also the “Motown City.” At the same time, as the title suggests, Detroit ’67 also uses its narrative focus to address the racial tensions that indelibly mark our public memories of July 1967. All of this is strategically supported by the sounds of Berry Gordy’s legendary musical empire, thereby paying tribute to a host of beloved Motown groups and their enduring hits.
And then there is Skeleton Crew, the final play within Morisseau’s dramatic triptych. Skeleton Crew follows the conceptual refrain set by its antecedents, integrating specific characterizations with the equally present characters of Detroit and its music. In place of the swing of jazz or Motown’s bop, Skeleton Crew’s more contemporary setting leads Morisseau to use hip hop as the play’s leitmotif: a fitting pairing, not only because hip hop is the recognized beneficiary of earlier forms of African American music, but because—as Morisseau indicates—hip hop complements the discernable yet undercover musicality found within the heartbeat of an auto plant.
It was, in fact, a concept-shaping visit to a Ford factory that prompted the playwright to take note of the rhythmic, syncopated, and synchronized sound that pervades such facilities: “I watched them work the line and I thought: ‘Wow. This is just like choreography.’ It was gorgeous and theatrical.” Undoubtedly influenced by this experience, Morisseau infused her script with hip hop, even writing stage directions that describe the hums and rattles of imagined machinery as “hip hop drum beats” that “blend into the rhythm—a cacophony of working class hustle”.
Beyond calling for the harmonious blending of hip hop music and industrial clamor, Morisseau extends the musical motif through her characters as well. Shanita, a young auto plant worker who relishes the mechanical rhythms that surround her, meditates on the sounds of the stamping plant: “Sound like harmony,” she says to a colleague, “like life happening. Production. Good sound.” For Shanita, the sounds of the stamping plant provide audible markers of productivity and employment. Although not conventionally melodic, they are still music to her ears.
Such a seemingly simple notation powerfully reverberates with the scope of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy. In writing about Detroit—its history and people— through the emotive lens of particular soundtracks, Morisseau designs her plays to be multi-sensory experiences that can be heard, seen, and felt. Tapping into the power of music, born from specific cultural and historical contexts, Morisseau creates a theatrical milieu that invites audiences to understand and experience the fullness of Detroit.
In so doing, she not only encourages us to pay our respects to Detroit’s (faded) glories, but she also invites us to recognize the beauty and power found in the city’s labor, struggles, resilience, and survival. Through Morisseau’s careful orchestration of The Detroit Project, the resonance and reverberations of Baraka’s reflection holds true: music does explain history and history does explain music—not only in terms of a city and its songs, but also through the indivisible histories of Detroit, African American music, and the broader tapestry of American life and culture.
Learn more about Skeleton Crew.