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'Ain't Too Proud' Playwright Dominique Morisseau Tackles The Temptations Origin Story

Jul 1, 2018
Originally published on July 2, 2018 12:09 am

Dominique Morisseau has her finger on Detroit's pulse. The award-winning playwright has written a trilogy of plays set in her hometown of Detroit, each considering pivotal moments in Motor City history: the 1940s jazz era, the '67 riots and the Great Recession.

In her latest project to hit the stage, Morisseau takes on the story of the mighty Motown icons, The Temptations. She's authored the book for Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, a new production that drives the classic jukebox musical into darker territory. Through the eyes of its founding and sole surviving original member, Otis Williams, it tells the origin story of the fractious group's ups and downs on the road to chart-topping stardom in 1960s America.

Morisseau says the art world is flooded with stories set in the past that could be told in 2018 because they employ similar themes. "We are all writing about the themes of love and power and power struggle and economics," she says.

As for The Temptations' story, she says, "Everything about 1963, '64, '65 could be mirrored right now — which is scary, but it's also profound that art gets to do that, to catch up to the time and give us a way of looking at something differently and getting dialogue about it."

Ain't Too Proud is now showing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and will travel to other cities before it heads to Broadway.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why she chose to work on this project

Well, first and foremost, I'm from Detroit. And if you're my generation, you grew up on your parents' music. And there's not a Detroiter that did not grow up on some kind of Motown sound.

I just was so moved by the story of these young African-American men at a time, you know, figuring out their lives and their identity and their role as artists, while the world and country was in great civic unrest. And that feels so now to me that I just — it was my way in. I wanted to tell that story.

On whether she was nervous about taking on the story of such an iconic group

Oh, Absolutely. I was shaking in my boots. Any time I have a story in my hands, it feels like, you know, a big call. To be able to tell someone's story while they're still living, it's a great burden and I think there's a great responsibility to that, and Otis Williams, he was so amazing. I got to meet with him and talk with him.

Even though I was nervous to share the work with him, actually I was most nervous to share it with him, and maybe with Detroiters. 'Cause they will be your toughest critics. Honey, they all feel like they knew The Temptations very well and they gon' tell you every way you should've done this, that and the other thing. But I feel like getting Otis is a blessing, like I feel, "C'mon, gimme your best shot, I got all this behind me."

On how she understands Otis Williams

I just marvel at who he is and the man that he is. It takes a lot to be able to stick with this group as long as he has, to be the glue, to be the backbone of this entity, to not really be the one in the spotlight. And we focus on that in our show too, I mean that takes a really special being. What he's made of, when you're around him and you can feel it, it's just magic, really. And it's vision, he's a visionary. And I realize in order to do that you have to kind of have to step — it's like when a really good leader knows when to be a follower. That's what I get when I'm around him.

On how plays set in the past mirror the present

Whether you're dealing with Shakespeare, or whether you're dealing with a new Katori Hall play or a Tarell Alvin McCraney story, we are all writing about the themes of love and power and power struggle and economics. I mean these tales have been the tales as old as time.

And why all stories feel like right now is because of those themes. They all feel like 2018 stories. The Temptations' story starts in 1963. Everything about 1963, '64, '65 could be mirrored right now — which is scary, but it's also profound that art gets to do that, to catch up to the time and give us a way of looking at something differently and getting dialogue about it.

On whether the industry is opening up more opportunity for diverse roles

I think yes and no. I think you're going to see a lot more artists of color. You're gonna see, right now there's a lot of African women artists in New York who are getting their work produced.

I always say that we can't allow ourselves to be cherry-picked, you know, or to be the flavor of the month. Flavors come and go. And I think that it feels like we're being flavored right now as opposed to being institutionalized and grown up from the bottom up.

We're not in administrative roles in theater, and we need to be in more leadership positions. There needs to be more artistic directors of color, there needs to be more executive directors. I mean that we really have to do it all the way throughout the institutions and not just, you know, on the program, on the brochure, on the stage.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Ain't too proud to beg - yes, you know it. Please don't leave me, girl. Don't you go. Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl. Don't you go.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Who else could that be but The Temptations - one of a handful of groups whose songs were part of the soundtrack of American life in the 1960s and '70s? There's a new musical currently playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., that tells the story of the group's founding and rise to superstardom. It's called "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations." And the musical is told through the eyes of its co-founder and sole surviving member, Otis Williams.

We talked with Otis Williams yesterday. Today, we wanted to hear from the playwright - a Detroit native herself - Dominique Morisseau. She's a rising star in her own right with previous works that include a trilogy of plays set in Detroit that explore the jazz era through the 2008 recession. Morisseau's varied career also includes a stint writing for the hit TV show "Shameless." And Dominique Morisseau is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations.

DOMINIQUE MORISSEAU: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So why did you want to do this project?

MORISSEAU: Well, first and foremost, I'm from Detroit. And, if you're my generation, you grew up on the - your parents' music, you know? There's not a Detroiter that did not grow up on some kind of Motown sound. And so I just was so moved by the story of these young African-American men at a time - you know, figuring out their lives and their identity and their role as artists while the world and the country was in great civic unrest. And that feels so now to me that I just - it was my way in. I wanted to tell that story.

MARTIN: I have to ask, did you have any nervousness about taking on a story about - I can't think of any other word to use except iconic...

MORISSEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This iconic group that is so important to so many people? Probably your parents, all their neighbors...

MORISSEAU: That's right.

MARTIN: Everybody...

MORISSEAU: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Listened to The Temptations. I have to ask, is there a part of you that was nervous about thinking, OK, I'm going to tell this story now?

MORISSEAU: Oh, absolutely. I was shaking in my boots. I mean (laughter) - you know. Anytime I have anyone's story in my hands, it feels like, you know, a big call. To be able to tell someone's story while they're still living is - it's a great burden, I think, and a great responsibility to that. And Otis Williams - he was so amazing. I got to meet with him and talk with him even though, you know, I was nervous to share the work with him. Actually, I was most nervous to share it with him - and maybe, like, with Detroiters because they will be your toughest critics.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MORISSEAU: Honey, they all felt like they knew The Temptations very well, and they're going to tell you every way that you should have done this, that and the other (laughter). So - but I feel like getting Otis is a blessing - kind of makes me feel like, come on, give me your best shot. I've got Otis behind me.

MARTIN: How do you understand Otis Williams now that you've had a chance to immerse yourself in his story?

MORISSEAU: I just marvel, kind of, at who he is and the man that he is. It takes a lot to be able to stick with this group as long as he has - to be the glue, to be the backbone of this entity, to not really be the one in the spotlight. You know, and we focus on that in our show, too. I mean, that sort of takes a really special human being. What he's made of - when you're around him, and you can feel it, it's just magic, really, and it's vision. He's a visionary. And you realize that, in order to do that, you kind of have to step - it's like when - a really good leader knows when to be a follower - that's what I get when I'm around him.

MARTIN: You know, Detroit, obviously, is very important to your work as a writer, and you've written about different time periods like the '67 riots, the '40s jazz era, now The Temptations. But you've been quoted as saying that all plays are about now right now.

MORISSEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: Would you talk a little bit about that?

MORISSEAU: Yeah. Whether you're dealing with Shakespeare or whether you're dealing, you know, with a new Katori Hall play or a Tarell Alvin McCraney story, you know, we are all writing about the themes of love and power and power struggle and economics. I mean, these tales have been the tale (laughter) as old as time, and why all stories feel like right now is because of those themes. They all feel like 2018 stories. The Temptations' story is - you know, starts in 1963, their group starts. You know, and everything about 1963, '64, '65 could be mirrored right now - which is scary, but it's also profound that art gets to do that - to catch up to the time and give us a way of looking at something differently and get in dialogue about it.

MARTIN: I read that you actually started writing plays in college because you actually were studying acting...

MORISSEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And that you started writing because there were not the roles...

MORISSEAU: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...For you that you wanted to perform. Is it getting better?

MORISSEAU: You know, I think yes and no. I think a lot - you're going to see a lot more artists of color. You're going to see - you know, right now, there's a lot of African women artists in New York who are getting their work produced. And so I always say that we can't allow ourselves to be cherry-picked, you know, or to be the flavor of the month, you know, because that's - flavors come and go. And I think that it feels like we're being flavored right now as opposed to being institutionalized and grown up from the bottom up, you know. And so...

MARTIN: What would that look like?

MORISSEAU: We're not in administrative roles in theater, and we need to be in more leadership positions. People of color need to be more - there needs to be more artistic directors of color, there needs to be more executive directors. I mean that we really have to do it all the way throughout the institutions and not just, you know, on the program, on the brochure, on the stage.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I want to mention that you have one of the most epic wedding dance videos ever...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...One that has been seen at least a half a million - by at least a half a million people on YouTube. It was actually to a song from "Dirty Dancing," which is the...

MORISSEAU: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Piece that's (unintelligible). So I have to put you on the spot. Did you play the Temptations at your wedding?

MORISSEAU: (Laughter) Oh, of course we played Temptations at our wedding. We had a whole Motown segment at our wedding.

(LAUGHTER)

MORISSEAU: My husband - his name is Jimmy Keys, but he's a hip-hop artist - he goes by J. Keys - and so we had an epic wedding dance (laughter) of music history, really, because of that. And The Temptations are all day through our wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL'S ALRIGHT WITH ME")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) This little girl of mine, I wanna say she's so fine.

MARTIN: That is the award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau. She wrote the book for "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations." It's showing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and will travel to other cities before it heads to Broadway.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MORISSEAU: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.