For much of his adult life, S. Robert Morgan has regarded and used theater as a vehicle with which to tell stories about the African-American experience, shed light on the vagaries, nuances and commonalities of human beings, and exploring and delving into the rainbow of the Black experience.
Consequently, in his 30 years as founder and executive director of the Essential Theatre, Morgan has produced a theater canon with drama and art as a canvas, bringing theater plays to D.C. residents, particularly its African American inhabitants. Decades later, he said, he can look back with pride at what he has accomplished.
“Well, when I came along, I was just coming out of college,” he said. “I noticed that the theater community was just beginning to blossom. The Shakespeare Theatre, which moved into the Folger Library, was the only solid representation we had at the time telling the Black story.”
“The DC Black Reparatory Theatre was at its heyday but then it started to diminish. I felt moved at some point to grow up. I was in my early 20s and I had to grow up [and start the theater].”
Morgan, a Fort Washington, Md., native, said he thought at the time that there was a need for more representation of Black people and from various perspectives “because we’re not a monolith and don’t think the same way.” So Essential Theatre — which is celebrating its 30th anniversary — filled that void.
The theater is a nonprofit professional theater dedicated, but not limited to, producing theater reflective of the African-American experience that explores and celebrates America’s rich, diverse cultural landscape, the website said. Paramount to the company’s mission is the implementation of programs for youth in D.C.’s metropolitan area that promotes interdisciplinary education and positive levels of self-esteem.
Located in Southeast, the theater has served as a way to attract new audiences; find, encourage and train new talent, produce theater entertainment with unique appeal, and provide everyone in the D.C. metropolitan community an outlet for creative expression.
As he looks back over the arc of his journey, Morgan said what he experienced was not anything he expected “but we have had some bright spots.”
Art through theater, he said, is a means to catalyze, change communities and if done effectively, function as a stimulus to grow a creative economy.
One of the biggest challenges he has faced over the years, Morgan said, is marshaling enough money and resources to pay the bills, undertake the projects that grab him and have a financial cushion. The difference between his theater and say, the Signature Theatre has been stark.
“Signature Theatre started about the same time as I did. It has been a study in contrasts. I understand how privilege has moved some companies way beyond, but this is my journey,” he said softly. “Interestingly enough for us people of African descent, it seems to be the same thing across the board no matter where you go. It doesn’t mean that European thespians aren’t struggling but often this is our reality.
“We have meager budgets but we’re rich. And I get to sit in my tent door and look at the panoramic view,” Morgan said.
In mid-September, the theater continued its 30th anniversary year celebration by hosting a Theatre Week of the 1996 Helen Hayes Award-nominated comedy cabaret, “A Night with Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley,” written and performed by Charisma Wooten.
Loretta Mary Aiken, better known as Moms Mabley, was a stand-up comedian billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World.” She tackled topics too edgy for many other comics of the time, including everything from sexuality to racism. She endured sexual, racial and political oppression while paving the way for many of the women actors we enjoy today. A veteran of the Chitlin’ circuit of African-American vaudeville, she later appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Mabley was one of the top women doing stand-up in her heyday.
She was one of the most successful entertainers of the Chitlin’ circuit, earning $10,000 a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater at the height of her career, recorded more than 20 albums of comedy routines and appeared in movies, on television, and in clubs. Patrons were encouraged to bring items that were donated for Bahamian victims of Hurricane Dorian.
“This is kind of a do-over for us,” Morgan said of the Mabley play. “We planned to do this in 2016 but we didn’t have this facility. We’re not a priority in this space and we weren’t able to pull it off. But things have changed. When you look at Moms Mabley, you can’t help but take seriously our role as purveyors of African American stories and history. In telling her stories, we can reach out to different constituencies, groups. She was a victim of rape, assault and the way she lost her parents …”
“Our board has been targeting and focusing on the LGBTIA community, which gives us another opportunity for people to come through the doors.”
And Thursday, Oct. 31, in the spirit of Halloween, the Essential Theatre, in partnership with the Anacostia Library, presents the play “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” which takes place at 4 p.m. The play, based on Washington Irving’s famous short story, has been adapted by David Ostergaard and directed by Emily Hubbard. Morgan said more tricks and treats, provided by the Fairlawn Citizens Association and the Friends of Anacostia Library, will follow after the play.
Morgan, who played “mostly blind” bar owner Butchie on the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” for 4½ years, said Africans in America have an interesting and too often self-defeating view of spending money with their own. The implications for those in the Arts, Black-owned businesses, historically Black colleges and universities, foundations and other entities that need and could thrive with Black dollars is clear. But even as the Black community looks for ways to deal with this issue, he said, the Essential Theatre will continue to hosts its play development program, the New Play Reading Series, the Children’s Program in Public Schools, and the Women’s Works Program.
Morgan believes that there’s what he calls a psychosis inherited from slavery has left Black people untrusting of people who look like them, being unwilling to invest in Black businesses, projects and programs and being risk-averse when it comes to dealing with other Blacks. Sometimes, this reality is expressed in the most unusual milieus. For example, Morgan said he saw it in the twin Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
“I was so turned on by Trinidad and Tobago theater and their use of our language in the classical sense. But I saw the distrust of some people in the Caribbean. I fell instantly in love with what I saw but the guy was suspicious of why they’re worked informed me. The same schisms exist here in America.”
“The response we get and give each other boils down to the psychosis of slavery,” he continued. “This really is the thing that makes me support reparations. Not long ago, a man grilled me about the prices, prices that are almost $10 less than usual. We will go across the bridge, across the river and pay whatever they want but we’ll come back into our community and want the ‘brother’ rate.”
“The Black community goes everywhere else. Spending money in the Black community isn’t a priority. Customer service is at an all-time low. That’s at the root of the cause of why we’re in the position we’re in. There’s a truism to the Willy Lynch Papers. Someone has observed us because we live out loud.”
An example: Morgan said he talked recently to 20- to 22-year-old millennials who told him they won’t buy concessions for $2 but they have $1,000 cellphones and $200 sneakers.
“We have to get into group economics. Dr. Claud Anderson talked about this. Jews support each other. The numbers are stunning,” he said. “How many times does a dollar circulate? It’s like 12 times among whites, 13 times in the Jewish community and 14 times with Latinos. … There has to be a national discussion about this issue. The Congressional Black Caucus should be the forum for a national dialogue. It has to happen in our schools, universities and elsewhere.”