Meet the Playwrights Bringing Social Justice to the Stage

These women are helping audiences empathize with issues in a way that a book or an article can’t.
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Namir Smallwood and Karen Pittman in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline.”

Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Dominique Morisseau

Humanizing the struggles of the school-to-prison pipeline

Dominique Morisseau, an award-winning playwright from Detroit, describes herself as an artist-activist. She recently developed a three-play cycle called The Detroit Projects, in which she highlights issues that have affected the city for decades, such as racism, urban renewal, and economic inequality.

Morisseau’s newest project, Pipeline, tackles the mass incarceration of Black men with the story of a devoted inner-city public high school teacher who tries to save her teenage son from the school-to-prison pipeline.

New research shows that kids can start going down that path as early as preschool, where Black children are 3.6 times more likely than White children to be suspended.

Morisseau, the daughter of a teacher and a former teacher herself, developed a deep understanding of the pipeline from her time living in urban cities like Detroit, New York, and Chicago.

“This concerns me,” Morisseau says. “And playwrights have the power to humanize social issues by making people visualize human beings at the forefront of those issues. We can spark emotions and make people feel these issues in their guts rather than simply make them think about it in their brains.”

Catherine Filloux

Writing from the margins of human rights issues

The incarceration rate for women in the United States is the second-highest in the world, and that bothers Catherine Filloux, a human rights advocate and playwright. She hopes to bring awareness to the issue in a new play called What Does Free Mean?

“That’s how it usually works for me,” Filloux says. “I pick an important issue that I want to bring awareness to and I write a play about it.”

Plays can help people empathize with an issue in a way that a book or an article can’t, she says.

Born to immigrant parents, Filloux says she often writes from the perspective of unheard and marginalized voices and explores human rights abuses around the world. She often travels abroad to understand injustice elsewhere and how it relates to the U.S.

Her play Eyes of the Heart chronicles a group of Cambodian women who suffered from psychosomatic blindness after witnessing the “killing fields” atrocities under the Khmer Rouge. Another of Filloux’s works is Lemkin’s House, inspired by the work of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the word genocide.

Milta Ortiz 

Creating healing roles for unheard voices

In 2010, Milta Ortiz and her husband traveled to Arizona. They were going to protest an unfair law that ordered immigrants to carry registration documents at all times while requiring police to question them whenever “reasonable suspicion” of their U.S. status arose. Ortiz, originally from El Salvador, also was influenced by Precious Knowledge, a documentary that spotlights Tucson High School students’ fight to keep the school’s controversial but successful Mexican American studies class alive. Dismissing the program as racist, Arizona legislators enacted a law that helped end the program.

In response, Ortiz moved from Chicago to Tucson, where she began working on Más, a drama that is based on dozens of interviews Ortiz conducted with students, teachers, and supporters of the program. Ortiz said the play served to heal those who were active in the struggle to save the program.

Ortiz now helps run the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, which produces plays that reflect the diverse voices of the U.S.-Mexico border region. She considers her plays to be “edutainment.”

“I’m noting history that wouldn’t otherwise be noted,” she says. “This is my contribution to society.”