West Chester residents share experiences for new play
● By J. Chambless
By Natalie Smith
Dominique Morisseau is a woman with many stories to tell. “I guess I’ll keep writing until I’m depleted,” she said with a laugh.
But that likely won’t be soon. A celebrated playwright whose awards and accolades include being a 2018 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” Morisseau was involved in a People’s Light & Theatre Company community initiative called New Play Frontiers that has resulted in a work inspired by the people and places of a West Chester neighborhood.
The ambitious NPF program has playwrights living, or “embedded,” in the counties surrounding People’s Light in Malvern, with the resulting works reflecting “American identity through stories of deep meaning to specific populations,” according to an online essay by producing director Zak Berman.
Morisseau said her experience, which took her to a section of West Chester Borough that has historically been the home to many African Americans, was an inspirational one. The resulting work, “Mud Row,” is a drama that examines the lives of women who live in different eras. Morisseau’s heartfelt plays often depict family relationships and life struggles that clearly resonate with her audiences.
“It’s essentially the story of two sisters who have different relationships to their grandmother's home -- two sisters are in the present and two sisters are in the past,” Morisseau explained. “The two sisters in the past are the grandmother and her sister, and they are navigating how they're going to have ownership of their home and of their family legacy. The sisters in the present are figuring out how they're going to navigate each other's relationship to their family home.
“I think it's more about how legacy does or does not get passed down from generations.”
The playwright said her work also looks at the two pairs of sisters’ relationships regarding status. “Both sets of sisters are about two generations of black Americans and black American women dealing with being of a different class or having different class aspirations,” Morisseau said.
An award-winning playwright whose honors include an OBIE Award, two NAACP Image Awards and a Primus Prize issued by the American Theatre Critics Association, the Detroit native’s works also include a three-cycle series, “The Detroit Project,” which has people of that city at its center.
Morisseau’s introduction to the area was through the Charles A. Melton Arts & Education Center on East Miner Street. She said the enthusiasm of its executive director, Ken Winston, was initially a large part of the reason she was eager to write about West Chester.
“It just felt like Ken's belief in that center and in his own his mission inspired all of us,” Morisseau said. Besides spending time at Melton Center, research at the Chester County Historical Society gave her a sense of the area’s Civil Rights activism, from a stop on the Underground Railroad to its being the home of famed Civil Rights hero Bayard Rustin, known to many as the “architect of the March on Washington.”
For Morisseau, her time with the folks around the Melton Center had a ring of the familiar. “I was a teacher in New York for a number of years, and when I would hang out there it just seemed like, ‘This is right,’” she said with a laugh.
She shared conversations with some of the senior members of the community, and found their contributions extremely worthwhile.
“I got to spend time with them and talk with them about collecting some of their memories about the neighborhood. I think it really did give me a lot of feeling about that world that made me sort of excited and want to write about the community,” she said.
Many people involved with the center also opened their homes to her, which she said proved invaluable in crafting the drama. But some of the older residents were a bit skeptical of her at first, Morisseau said. As she spent time with them, she was able to reassure them.
“I thought, ‘Let me make sure that they know who I am, and I'm not here to colonize their story or to somehow exploit who they are. I'm here to really roll in inspiration and then create my own original story that was inspired by them,’” Morisseau said. “I always have to say, ‘I'm not telling their [individual stories], I'm telling a fictional story inspired by the community.’”
The playwright said the title, “Mud Row,” was drawn from an area in the extreme eastern part of the borough originally populated by African Americans. There were different theories on where exactly it was and how it earned its name – perhaps a muddy place around the railroad tracks or an area where sewage would back up – but regardless, it was a place some said no one had been interested in cleaning up. It certainly intrigued Morisseau, who said she thought the debate “would be an interesting place to start a family story.”
As Morisseau was crafting the play, People’s Light presented a reading of “Mud Row” for the Melton Community Center members. “The first draft the community center heard was the first half of my play. That was exciting and they were ready to hear the rest. They approved, and I think they can hear what their influences are,” Morisseau said.
Directing Morisseau’s production on the People’s Light stage is Steve H. Broadnax III, who previously directed Morisseau’s work, “Skeleton Crew” at the Malvern theater. Himself an actor and playwright, Broadnax started his professional collaboration with her in a 2014 work commissioned by the Penn State School of Theatre called “Blood at the Root.” He has continued to direct and tour with many of her plays, including a production of one of her Detroit cycle, “Detroit ’67,” in the Motor City itself.
“I admire her and am honored to call her my friend,” Broadnax said. “I’m not from Detroit, but now I’ve come to love it. I know what she writes about.”
The director said, “I love her activism. That’s what I love about her work – her activism and storytelling and her poetry.”
Both director and playwright have high praise for the New Play Frontiers initiative at People’s Light. “I think it’s awesome that a program like this really focuses on and localizes regional history,” Broadnax said.
“There's no better way, really,” Morisseau said. “No better example of literally making the theater reflect the people of a community than to have playwrights go out and meet their community and write their stories or write stories inspired by them. [It’s] one of the most proactive ways of community engagement I've ever seen.”
The playwright warmly recalls her time getting to know the people of West Chester. “They felt like extensions of family members to me, honestly.,” Morisseau said of the residents with whom she spent time and got to know. “I mean, they all felt like people I'd known for a very long time.”
“Mud Row” will be staged from June 26 to July 28 at People’s Light & Theatre Company (39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern).
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.