THE ARTS AS ACTIVISM:
This is the first in a series of profiles about creating social change through artistic expression.
Local playwright Gregory Lloyd Morris tackles unemployment and crime in a returning one-act play July 13 at World Cafe Live at The Queen
When Wilmington playwright Gregory Lloyd Morris and director Andre Jones debuted #BlackJobsMatter: A Wilmington Experiment at the baby grand in February, it was supposed to be a one-time show.
The single-act performance, highlighting three disparate stories about the issues of unemployment, job discrimination and felon re-entry, was hard-hitting. Written with the city of Wilmington in mind — upwards of 9,000 African American males in the city are jobless — Morris wanted to utilize his artistic skill to help create awareness and promote social change.
“#BlackJobsMatter sent shockwaves through the city,” says Morris. “Those we have criminalized in our minds are really some of the brightest people in the community. But those are the stories that don’t get in the newspaper.”
Morris believes the play presents one possible solution to the city’s issues: the introduction of enterprise zones—government tax incentives offered to businesses to provide jobs for underserved residents—that would help reduce crime and unemployment in some of the area’s most criminalized zip codes.
After receiving positive feedback from the February performance, Morris and crew are offering a second opportunity to witness the free-of-charge theater experience on Wednesday, July 13, at World Cafe Live at The Queen. Doors open at 6 and the 45-minute show starts at 7 p.m., after keynote speakers from Buccini/Pollin Group and the Twin Poets—the state’s poet laureates—take the stage.
The three stories in #BlackJobsMatter include one male character in his mid-50s who has a criminal record and can’t seem to land a job; a Hispanic single mother who tries to safely guide her biracial daughter through high school, and a young drug dealer who is caught between worlds and searching for a job.
The play asks two basic questions: What are some of the challenges in underserved neighborhoods, and what are some of the challenges people are confronted with while they are unemployed?
“This is where people fall back into criminal behavior,” Morris says.
He describes the performance as unapologetic, saying it includes heavy language and profanity, enlivened by the group of actors who each had a past living in underserved communities like the characters they portray.
“They have their own reservoir of emotions to make this a genuine performance,” Morris says.
A strong argument Morris presents is the need for such performances to be given “high art” profiles. For example, in order for art and activism to be fully realized as a powerful entity, he believes it needs to be “presented, cultured and housed in regional theaters.”
“We need to hear more stories come off the bigger stages like these at The Queen or Grand,” he says. “Art and advocacy would benefit from the doors being open to regional theater, not just plays held in smaller venues like churches and schools.”
While it’s inspired by Wilmington, the character-driven play is also autobiographical, says Morris. He has a master’s degree in fine arts—and is now adjunct professor of English at Wilmington University and chief creative director of his awareness organization, the Morris Project—but last winter, to his horror, Morris found himself unemployed.
“When I was commissioned in December to write this play, I was writing it about myself. I was experiencing what life is like when you don’t have enough resources—trying to pay child support, keep bills paid, as an artist,” he says. His predicament spurred his creativity. “It didn’t even take me a week to write that play.”
Morris writes solely about “the streets, the underbelly” of the community. In fact, his oeuvre includes The Belly, which was produced by Temple University for 14 shows to sellout crowds in 2010, and November 2014’s Second Chances, which centered on a gifted young man’s struggle to find his purpose after being released from prison.
A play Morris hadn’t previously announced is These Three Things. With a TBA release date, it was written in response to the tragic Howard High School killing of student Amy Inita Joyner-Francis in April. While the play isn’t about that specific case, Morris explores the harrowing concept of what a young person’s life could have been if it hadn’t been cut short.
Since the February performance of #BlackJobsMatter, Morris has noticed the beginnings of social movement.
“I was commended by the banking community and the governor for taking art and using it as activism, and we collected 300 names on a petition to give to the governor to encourage enterprise zones,” he says.
He encourages all city residents to do the same—write to city and state officials to encourage enterprise zones.
“My offering is a solution, not the solution,” Morris says. “I challenge other visionaries in the community, whether artists, activists, or a combo, to come up with their version of a solution. That’s the power of art speaking towards activism—art is the most powerful voice. We can say things the politicians can’t.”
RSVP to attend this performance for FREE here.