A big night is coming this week to People’s Light in Malvern. The world premiere of Mud Row by Dominique Morisseau premieres on Wednesday, June 26, and runs through July 28. It’s produced by her erstwhile collaborator, Steve H. Broadnax III.
Morisseau, 41, is a great get for People’s Light. One of the most sought-after writers in the United States at the moment, she’s known for her “Detroit Projects,” plays that seek to take back the history of her birth city. One of them, Detroit ’67, was seen at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton last fall.
A writer for Showtime’s Shameless and a MacArthur Foundation grant-winner, Morisseau also wrote the book for the Tony-winning Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
She came to People’s Light through the New Play Frontiers Program, which encourages what producing director Zak Berkman has called a “farm-to-table approach” to playwriting. Writers embed themselves in communities near Malvern and do street-level, eye-to-eye research about the people and place. Mud Row is the program’s second fruit; the first was Karen Hartman’s terrifically moving Project Dawn, based on the problem-solving sex-worker courts in Philadelphia.
Mud Row was a community in eastern West Chester historically populated by African Americans, with deep ties to the Underground Railroad and the civil-rights movement. Morisseau did much of her work at the Charles A. Melton Arts & Education Center on East Miner Street in West Chester.
She started her work in 2013 and visited the area repeatedly. “I knew nothing about all the history before I came,” she says by phone from Southern California. “Most everyone was very welcoming. A few were skeptical, as they had a right to be, but when I told them my story, from there on they were very generous and giving. I told them, `I’m a playwright who has written plays about places like Detroit, where the history of the place is either unknown or has been sabotaged by people from outside who think they know the story.' When they heard that, I think from then on they were all right with me.”
In Mud Row, four women — two sisters apiece in two different generations — fight both to protect and to break away from their mothers’ legacies. Morisseau says she wants people to know that the story, while inspired by her research, is not literally “taken from” that research but rather is a composite, a fiction: “But though it may be a fiction, I hope people will find that it speaks to their situations, as well as to those of many people in many parts of this country.”
Morisseau did a reading of part of Mud Row at the Melton Center and says it went well. “I really want to hear what the people in the community think of it,” she says. “That’s part of this process. What do they feel I got right? The same if I get something wrong. This process isn’t over, and I can always learn something.”
Everyone is talking about “community-based theater” these days. Morisseau says it’s just how she works: “I just can’t start talking about something unless I know something about it. Knowing a place and its people is my best beginning point.”