Artist to Watch: Lewis J. Morrow

photo by Jim Barcus

The charismatic actor and noted playwright will focus on playwrights of color as KC MeltingPot’s Director of New Play Development.

Once upon a time, there weren’t many hyphenated theater artists in Kansas City. You could be an actor. Or you could be a director. Or you could be a playwright. For the most part, artists stayed in their lanes.

That’s not really the case anymore. Actors direct, directors write plays and sometimes you can see somebody direct and act in a play he or she wrote.

Which brings us to actor/playwright Lewis J. Morrow. Morrow was named Director of New Play Development at KC MeltingPot Theatre in March. The appointment reflects the company’s goals moving forward.

As an actor, Morrow is a charismatic presence. Audiences saw him in a range of productions in recent years, including Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning “Sweat” at the Unicorn, August Wilson’s surrealistic epic “Gem of the Ocean” at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre and the autobiographical “2121” by KC MeltingPot co-founder Harvey Williams. And his plays have been produced locally (“Ain’t No Such Thing as Midnight Black” at MeltingPot and “Elephant” by Rising Tide Productions at the Living Room) and at workshops and festivals across the country.

The announcement of Morrow’s new role followed the news that Nicole Hodges Persley, a director and associate professor of theater at the University of Kansas, had been appointed artistic director after serving three years as MeltingPot’s associate artistic director.

Williams, who co-founded MeltingPot in 2012 with his wife, Linda Williams, said the announcements indicated growth with an eye on the future for the small company based at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Williams said MeltingPot had no permanent staff when it began, and he naturally stepped into the role of artistic director. Now, he said, the goal is to become a more mainstream theater. To that end, he has been in conversations with Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union for actors and stage managers. If the talks are successful, MeltingPot could hire Equity members going forward and possibly be a means for young actors of color to gain their Equity cards. Williams, himself a member of Equity, said that could enhance the level of professionalism in MeltingPot productions.

“It’s us putting our big-boy pants on,” Williams said.

Morrow, a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Kansas, said his primary task as the developer of new works will be to identify and develop African American playwrights and other minority writers.

“Yes, it is to develop playwrights of color but also to develop them in an environment that is supportive,” Morrow said.

That, he said, would be consistent with MeltingPot’s goals since it began.

“I think it was rooted in multiculturalism and trying to expose diverse voices that you don’t see much in KC theater,” Morrow said. “I think that was the goal. My experience with them is that as it has evolved, it has become more centric around the Black experience and Black stories. But not to exclude anyone else . . . That was part of the natural evolution of (Williams) being a Black playwright and a Black actor. It was a natural progression. But diversity is welcome and not only welcome but encouraged.”

Morrow, 35, said his writing life began with poetry. “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember,” he said.

For a few years he was in a band in Texas that mixed hip-hop and jazz and for which he wrote 90 percent of the spoken-word material.

“But it wasn’t good, and we eventually went our own ways,” he said.

After that he tried his hand at short fiction. When he was 28, he wrote his first play. His writing was more or less done on his own, without mentoring or formal training. That’s why he hopes he can nurture young talent in his new role.

“I think it needs to be actively developed by a theater that has the personnel to do it,” he said. “I feel like theater and art is for everyone. Any time someone sits down and writes a story, for me personally, I would like anyone to come and experience it.”

His work has received exposure at a number of companies and festivals across the country — from North Carolina to California, from Florida to Michigan. His work has also been accepted for upcoming events in England and Poland.

That level of success, Morrow said, is possible because he tirelessly creates new work and sends it out to any theater company that sounds like a remote possibility.

“I just started submitting everything I could,” he said. “I guess it’s a numbers game. You always hear more noes than yeses.”

As a playwright of color, he has found himself in awkward situations. At one point a white artistic director told him by email that he ought to “reconsider how he writes for Black audiences.”

“I never even responded,” he said. “To this day that’s the most egregious thing anyone said to me.”

Morrow’s play “Baybra’s Tulips” will be part of MeltingPot’s 2019-20 season. But despite his success as a writer, he’s not ready to give up acting.

“Acting is fun,” he said. “Acting has been a huge outlet for me. I was big in sports in high school. For me, going on stage is a bigger rush than basketball or football. Playwriting is my passion, though.”

Morrow’s “Baybra’s Tulips” will run May 1 – 16, 2020. KC MeltingPot’s 2019-20 season also includes “King Hedly II,” Sept. 20 – Oct. 5, “For Colored Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” Dec. 5 – 15 and “A Raisin in the Sun,” Feb. 14 – 29. All productions will be presented at Just Off Broadway Theatre. For more information and tickets, www.kcmeltingpot.com.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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