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Playwrights' Perspectives

Lisa D'Amour on "Detroit"


My brother Chris, the quintessential charming New Orleans host, has a game he often starts at parties after downing an Old-Fashioned or two
. He especially loves to play it when his guests include people from different facets of his life—relative strangers to each other who might need an icebreaker in order to really relax. He'll smile, lean back in his chair, take a sip of his cocktail and begin: "Alright everybody, one question: If you could have any other job than the job you have now, what would it be?"

A simple question, and people always start by blowing it off. I'd be a quarterback in the NFL! I'd be independently wealthy! But Chris always implores them to think about it and answer honestly. And, slowly, people start to open up. They start talking about the major they ditched in college because the course of study wasn't practical. Or the shelf of archeology books they keep at home. Most often, people totally surprise you with their dream career, and their reasons for wanting it. Everyone has a secret self. A self they desperately want to be. A self they believe they will never get to be.

2009, the year I wrote Detroit, was an interesting year for secret selves. Remember? The year that everyone you knew was getting laid off, or getting their salary cut or losing their health insurance? The beginning of a time of great stress and anxiety as the stable structures people had come to rely on were revealed to be flimsy, unsound. For many people in 2009, to survive meant to imagine. I can't depend on this system, so who am I outside of it? What can I imagine on my own? The perfect conditions for a secret self to wake up and suggest that maybe it doesn't have to be so secret anymore.

Both couples in Detroit are at a crossroads. They can continue to go down a road that is familiar or choose to cut a brand new path. The suburban life Mary and Ben have known is starting to itch. Sharon and Kenny are fishing for stability after years of spontaneous crash-and-burn. The couples wake something up in each other. Like my brother Chris at one of his great parties, they say: who do you really want to be?

I come from a family that loves to host, and host hard. Big, Southern parties, usually outdoors, with a mess of family and friends, tables piled high with food, and plenty of beer, wine and booze. There's always music (usually played live), there's always laughter, and there is always a fiasco—something that breaks or burns or gets lost or goes wild. The fiasco is always the turning point in the party—when things get really loose. It's also the one thing that is remembered vividly: The party when Chris got his finger caught in the tiki torch. The party when we mistook firecrackers for gunshots, and Lisa locked herself in the bathroom with the kids. And when the fiasco occurs with strangers at the party... well, the bonding happens instantly.

At this point in our country's life, I'd like more opportunities to bond with strangers. I find it way too easy to stay inside my immediate circle of artist friends and colleagues, discussing theater and politics in a cozy bar filled with people who look a lot like me. As we (meaning "we" as a country) continue to stress about money, jobs and "the market," I wonder: is this a fiasco that could inspire some radical imagining? Is the continued anxiety really a chance to bond with people from a completely different walk of life? To step back and examine my own assumptions about status, comfort, ambition, community? And, if we're in the middle of a fiasco, does that mean the best part of the party is yet to come? The part when people let their guards down, become more honest and relaxed and start dancing?

A naïve hope, to be sure, but that's where my plays usually begin: with a giddy "what if?" What if two very diffeent couples suddenly became neighbors, and decided to open themselves up to each other? Detroit, even with all its strange and startling turns, is ultimately a play about the potential within people to imagine, to discover, to continually unearth secrets about each other and the world. 

–Lisa D'Amour, Playwright
July 2012

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