Lewis Morrow: Masterful Portraits of Black Life

Lewis Morrow in “Begetters,” which ran at KC Melting Pot Theatre in May. “Begetters” is part two of Morrow’s trilogy and followed the production of part one, “Baybra’s Tulips,” in 2021. Part three, “Mother/son,” was presented at KC Melting Pot in September. (photo by Thomas Kimble,TK Photography)

In the Kansas City playwright’s trilogy of the intense family dramas, Blackness is something active

“Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” Bloomsbury Publishing, September 2022  (Bloomsbury Publishing)

One of the strengths of American theater is that it always makes room for the self-taught artist. And that includes playwrights.

August Wilson, the preeminent African American dramatist of the 20th century, left a monumental body of work all the more remarkable because he didn’t finish high school — opting instead to educate himself in the public libraries of Pittsburgh.

Lorainne Hansberry, the first Black playwright to see her work staged on Broadway, attended more than one college but taught herself to write for the stage after moving to New York.

Eugene O’Neill was born into the theater — his father was an actor — but he didn’t begin writing plays until his 20s, creating works that reflected tortured family histories as well as the bars and brothels he experienced as he sailed the world in the merchant marine.

The dialogue exchanges are intricate, sharply crafted and marked by lengthy, muscular speeches.

Let us note this inescapable fact: For most of its history, theater was created by artists who were either wholly self-taught or learned their craft through apprenticeships. There were no MFA programs for William Shakespeare to attend.

And now we come to Lewis Morrow, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, who supports himself and his family as a claims adjuster. By his own account, he trained himself to be a playwright by reading plays — a ton of them, apparently — and by writing every day. The results can be found in “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” published in September under the Methuen Drama imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.

The plays — “Baybra’s Tulips,” “Begetters” and “Mother/son” — are intense family dramas in which characters can neither escape the past nor see a clear path forward. The storylines are clear and relatable: A man is released from prison and comes home to settle old family scores; a couple with a volatile history grieve for the loss of a son killed by a mass shooter; and a mixed-race son cares for his white mother as she recovers from drug addiction.

These plays are less plot-driven than reflective of each character’s struggle to understand themselves, their families and the world they inhabit. At times, Morrow builds flashbacks and memories into a scene, lending moments of surrealism within otherwise naturalistic plays. Humans have faulty memories and subjective views of their experiences. Time, Morrow suggests, can be obdurate as fate.

Each play is a series of long, deep conversations that reveal where the characters have been and where they may be going. And Morrow makes his actors work for their money. The dialogue exchanges are intricate, sharply crafted and marked by lengthy, muscular speeches.

In these plays you can hear echoes of Wilson and Hansberry, to be sure, as well as the generational dramas penned by O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman.

In his preface, Morrow writes: “Often, by those who have either read my work or attended a production, I’m asked, sometimes light-heartedly, sometimes desperately but always in earnest, why do I write tragic things. My instinct is to admit that I’ve tried my hand at comedy and I’m of no use to anyone in that capacity. That would be true. Yet, what is also true — and most true I might add — is I am moved by the tragic things in life because where there is tragedy there is triumph. There is redemption. There is resilience.”

The book was edited by Nicole Hodges Persley, artistic director of KC Melting Pot Theatre, which has produced each of these plays. Persley writes of Morrow in her introduction: “His works profess that Blackness is something that is active, in motion, in a constant state of being and becoming that is as infinite and regenerative as the cosmos . . .”

Persley writes that she hopes the trilogy “will afford many directors, actors, casts, and audiences around the world the opportunity to experience Morrow’s devastatingly beautiful portraits of Black life that tell it exactly like it is with no apology, excuses or explanation. Black people have and always will matter.”

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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