Jon Niccum
KU News Service

‘Black Matters’ anthology showcases emerging ‘audacious’ playwright

Wed, 10/19/2022

LAWRENCE — What word best describes the work of Lewis Morrow?

“Audacious,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, associate professor of American studies and African & African American studies at the University of Kansas.

Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas professorShe is the editor of a new book titled “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” an anthology of three works written by emerging Kansas City-based playwright Morrow that focus on the vivid emotional realities of modern African American life. It’s published by Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury.

“I can’t name a playwright right now who is writing such unapologetic language,” Hodges Persley said. “And he’s not doing it so that someone will see his work and hopefully pick it up for a TV series. He writes stories that really appeal to the urgency of what it means to live as a Black person in America.”

Morrow’s trilogy includes “Baybra’s Tulips,” about a former convict who moves in with his sister under the pretense of rehabilitation but is actually there to take revenge on his abusive brother-in-law. “Begetters” explores generational trauma through the lens of a couple in their 60s. “Mother/son” finds a Black man hoping to help his drug-addicted white parent get clean, only to discover that may be the least of their problems.

Hodges Persley said two of the three plays that are bookends are stories about absence.

"Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays" book cover“There’s this idea of how you wish your mother would be in ‘Mother/son.’ She’s not that, but it doesn’t mean that need doesn’t go away. Same with ‘Baybra’s Tulips.’ He wanted a relationship with both his mother and father that turned out very different, but even the absence of those relationships shaped him,” said Hodges Persley, who is also KU's new vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging.

In addition to Morrow’s command of language, Hodges Persley particularly appreciates his ability to counter the cliches often seen in mainstream American theatre about Black lives.

“When you see these tropes around absence of a father figure or a certain negative stereotypical representation of Black mothers, he doesn’t give you those. He gives you families that have money, they have a relationship, they’re not living in poverty. He’s taking average representations of Black families and saying, ‘You can’t continue to impose these stereotypes and mythologies on us.’”

Also serving as artistic director of the KC Melting Pot Theatre (the city’s premier African American theatrical company), Hodges Persley has directed four of Morrow’s plays. At times, she feels they have a comparable working relationship similar to the late Lloyd Richards and August Wilson of “The Piano Lesson.” Richards and Wilson had a collaborative relationship as director-playwright that Hodges Persley admires.

“We share apartments in each other’s brains,” Hodges Persley said. “We can have the best hangout and collab, and then when we’re ready to slam doors, we’re ready to slam doors. We often agree to disagree but ultimately have created a great partnership. I completely trust his writing, and he trusts me as a director to turn the story into a 3D, living, moving thing that reflects the intention of what he wants as a playwright.”

Already in the middle of two book projects with London-based Bloomsbury (best known as the original publisher of the Harry Potter books), the professor took a gamble that Morrow’s work might also get the company’s attention. But she made it clear his talent went deeper than mere cultural zeitgeist.

“I pitched it with this framework that he’s not writing to Black Lives Matter. He’s not talking about post-George Floyd. He’s contextualizing this within the larger Black history: ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been here,’” she said.

A Detroit native, Hodges Persley came to KU in 2009, where she honed her expertise in African American theatre and hip-hop performance. (She is one of a small group of scholars in the U.S. who focus on hip-hop’s musical and cultural influence in theatre.) Her recent publications include “Breaking It Down: Audition Techniques for Actors of the Global Majority” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Sampling and Remixing Blackness in Hip-Hop Theater and Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2021).

With constant political assaults on Black rights and culture going on now, do theatrical plays really matter?

“In African American communities and particularly in the American theatre, the erasure of Black theatre voices historically and systemically in the United States has been strategic,” Hodges Persley said. “We need the theatre — whether that be the church pulpit or the street corner or the library. It’s vital for us to continue to tell our stories because if we don’t tell our stories, they don’t exist.”

Top photo: iStock

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