THE ENSEMBLE THEATRE
JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE
Written by August Wilson
MARCH 15 - APRIL 8, 2007
TIME: August, 1911
SETTING: A Boarding House in Pittsburgh, PA
(In order of Appearance)
SETH HOLLY......................BYRON JACQUET
BERTHA HOLLY................BEBE WILSON
BYNUM WALKER...............WAYNE DEHART
RUTHERFORD SELIG..................KIT FORDYCE
JEREMY FURLOW..................BRODERICK JONES
HERALD LOOMIS...................TIMOTHY ERIC DICKSON
ZONIA LOOMIS.......................DANIELLE KING / CHELCEE NICOLE WILLIAMS
MATTIE CAMPBELL...................................AUTUMN KNIGHT
REUBEN SCOTT...................TANNER ELLIS / JONATHAN THIBEAUX
MOLLY CUNNINGHAM...............RACHEL HEMPHILL DICKSON
MARTHA PENTECOST...........................MELITA HAWKINS
EILEEN J. MORRIS
INTERVIEW WITH EILEEN J. MORRIS
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF ENSEMBLE THEATRE
DIRECTOR OF JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE
By Theresa Pisula
March 11, 2007
If there was one word to describe Eileen J. Morris, it would be the word PROUD. Just like that Tina Turner song, she never does things nice and easy. She likes to do things nice and rough. Sheís proud of her hard work, of the people she works with past and present, of where sheís been and where sheís going, of her knowledge and maturity. She is proud of her current project JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE and last but not least of The Ensemble Theatre. I guess thatís why she came back to Houston to become the Artistic Director of this theatre once again, which is celebrating its 30th season.
Eileen comes out to greet me beaming from ear to ear looking fashionably stunning in her cowboy hat and rodeo white jean jacket outfit. As the director, of course, sheís busy attending to everyoneís business since the show is about to start in a few minutes. But you can tell by the way she greets everyone that sheís the woman-in-charge. As we sit down for the interview, her great generosity fills the room as she thanks me profusely for coming to visit the theatre. I'm just humbled and in awe to be in her presence.
Theresa: Do you direct most of the plays here at Ensemble Theatre?
Eileen: Contractually, I am to direct 3 shows every year. So this is the second one for this season that Iíve directed. I love any of the works written by August Wilson because theyíre so powerful. He speaks to experiences that are part of our culture and part of our history.
Theresa: Tell us about the play JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE...
Eileen: JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE is the third or fourth play, I believe, in the August Wilson 10-play saga. It has been dubbed as the playwrightís favorite play. It definitely has become over the years my favorite piece of work. I feel that the story has so many different dynamics. But if you ask me what the play is about, itís about a man who is looking for his wife Martha Loomis after having been separated from her for seven years because he was enslaved by Joe Turner. He has his little girl Zonia with him. Thatís what takes place in the story but then thereís a lot of other people that come into play in the story. There are other people that come in and then they come and go.
Because itís set in Pittsburgh in August 1911 in a Boarding House and so these people are coming into this household. And you know when people come into your household, things get stirred up, something changes in the household. So, different peopleís lives become affected as other people come into the household. Itís about the lives of these common people who have come from all over because itís not long after slavery. And theyíre not necessarily trying to make this place their home.
But theyíre looking to re-direct themselves or as Bynum says in the play, ďIím just looking for my song. Iím trying to find my song.Ē And in finding your song, and thatís common in a lot of us, if we find our song we are able to know who we are, meaning, that youíve got to take your history. We have this Sankofa idea of knowing who you are: understanding your past, appreciating your present to be able to move into the future. And JOE TURNER is a love story between this husband and wife that own the Boarding House, between people that come there and between Loomis and his family and his daughter.
The great American Playwright AUGUST WILSON (August 1945 - October 2005). The Ensemble Theatre's Production of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE is Showing from March 15th thru April 8th, 2007. Call ph.713-520-0055 for tickets and reservations.
Theresa: August Wilson seems to write of subjects way before his time. I mean, he was born in 1945 even though this play is set in post-slavery America in 1911.
Eileen: Absolutely. One of the things that he has said is that he gets his information because he listens to the stories of other people. You know, the common man. And thatís the beauty of his writing is that he writes as we talk. So itís common language, itís very lyrical language and it has its own substance. And he wasnít afraid to do that in all of his plays. I lived in Pittsburgh for 7 years and then came back here to Houston. And so having lived in Pittsburgh, I understand what heís saying about the language and about the people. And thatís what he was able to do.
Theresa: Tell us about your past background, where and when you were born. You donít have to tell us your age if you donít want to.
Eileen: I donít care. Iím 50 years old. I was born June 4th, 1956. Iím divorced and I was married for 21 years. My ex-husband and I worked a lot in this theatre. So Ensemble Theatre is the theatre that I grew up in. I was born in Kankakee, Illinois, which is 30 miles south of Chicago. I was raised in Illinois but my parents are from Houston and Louisiana. I went to school in Illinois and then after I got married, my husband and I came to live here. I had our child. I just have one child and a grandson. We raised our son here and then grew up in the theatre because my degree was in Theatre Arts and I also wanted to work in the theatre.
George Hawkins the founder of Ensemble Theatre saw something in me and invited me to come and work with him as a stage manager and then managing director. I started with the theatre in 1982 and I knew him very well. We were very close, I was his right-hand person. I learned a lot of things from him about theatre and we were able to be colleagues and share and create together. After he passed, I became the Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre from 1990 through 1999. In 1999, I left and went to Pittsburgh until 2006. I came back in September and was asked to come back as Artistic Director again. Thatís my history.
Theresa: Did you get a chance to meet and know August Wilson?
Eileen: I met August Wilson before I went to Pittsburgh. August was here in Houston, he came to the Ensemble Theatre at least twice. During the time when I was the Artistic Director we had to call August, I had to communicate with him because thatís how we had to secure the rights to do his work. At that time, he was hand-picking places or directors that were able to do his work. I was blessed to be one of the people that he allowed to do his work. He knew of Ensemble Theatre and he gave us permission to do his work and he came to visit several times. He knew of me from my work with Mr. Purdy (Claude Purdy directed JOE TURNERíS COME AND GONE at the Alley Theatre) having done a lot of August Wilsonís plays. And so he felt very comfortable in allowing me as a female to direct his work and as an actress to be in his play and also produce his work.
When we did TWO TRAINS RUNNING, Mr. Wilson came in and saw our production. He was here for the Alleyís 50th Anniversary season and the Ensemble Theatreís 20th Anniversary season and he came to participate with us as well. So, thatís how I first met him. But then we spent a week together, there were like 60 theatre professionals and artistic directors and managers that were On Golden Pond. Right before he had just finished his speech, ďThe Ground on Which I StandĒ. And so from that speech, there convened about 60 theatre professionals, I was lucky to be one of those. So we all spent a week together On Golden Pond talking about and finding ways to secure the African American Theatre World. And so I got an opportunity to be with Mr. Wilson during that week.
And in a number of occasions, Iíve been in his presence. When he came to Pittsburgh we had a chance to talk and see my production of Ma Raineyís Black Bottom there. My interaction with him over the years has been great, one that we actually had several conversations.
Theresa: What is the first August Wilson play you directed?
Eileen: (Pause) Ma Raineyís Black Bottom. The first one I performed in was Joe Turnerís Come and Gone. I performed in that at the Alley Theatre.
Theresa: Oh yeah, I read that you performed your first equity show Joe Turnerís Come and Gone at the Alley Theatre starring Roscoe Lee Browne and directed by Claude Purdy. How is this particular August Wilson play special to you?
Eileen: For me doing this play is important because, and it wasnít until I read Everett Evansí Houston Chronicle article today that I realized that this is the first play in Houston thatís been done of August Wilsonís since his death. And heís been dead for a year and a half. And so we owe that to him to be able to do his work. And itís my goal because Iím so in love with his work to do one of his plays every year as often as I can. Iíve been blessed to have been able to have directed 4 or 5 of Augustís works and I was in 6 of them. So that says a lot because not many females can say that.
Theresa: How do you plan to choose the plays for the upcoming season?
Eileen: Well we already have our special August Wilson play but since our season isnít announced for next year, I canít say that. The plays for the new season are chosen based upon works that would be effective in helping our artists to grow, in strengthening the creativity and the artistic talent here at the theatre. And what our audiences will enjoy and what speaks to the mission of the Ensemble Theatre. So those plays, the plays that are selected for next season, I believe definitely have a variety and a diversity that will be enhancing and exciting to the audiences and the artists involved.
Theresa: What would you like to say to the Houston Theatre - going audience?
Eileen: We just appreciate you coming out and doing this interview with us because itís important for us to let people know that weíre here. As much information as we try to put out there, a lot of times people still donít know. And so we appreciate you assisting us in making that happen.
And the Ensemble Theatre is a treasure. We are celebrating our 30th Anniversary Season. We have a very strong, committed, dedicated Board of Directors. We are over 1,500 subscribers and we are shooting for 3,000. And weíre the only black professional theatre in the Southwest. Weíre one of maybe 4 or 5 black theatre companies that own their own space. So we have a lot to be thankful and grateful for and your assistance in helping the community to know about us is important.
Theresa: The plays Iíve seen here at Ensemble Theatre are top quality. Iíve never been disappointed and every time I come here Iím really inspired and uplifted. I donít know if itís the heavy drama, the humor or the singing and the music. Just out of curiosity, you have a choreographer in this drama?
Eileen: I do. His name is Sadiki Johnson because thereís a dance in here called the Juba. And the Juba is an African ritual that is done and it comes from Africa. And so I asked him to do it. Because as a choreographer, thereís a certain dynamic that needs to happen within this dance.
Theresa: You want to be as authentic as possible.
Eileen: Absolutely. Thatís very important.
AUGUST WILSON in the Hill District in front of the New Granada Theater in 1999 when his play "King Hedley II" opened in Pittsburgh Public Theater's New O'Reilly Theater. The play is set in 1985 in the Hill District, where Wilson grew up. Photo by Will Wade, courtesy of the Post - Gazette. The Ensemble Theatre's Production of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE is Showing from March 15th thru April 8th, 2007. Call ph.713-520-0055 for tickets and reservations.