In the shade of a tall, bent tree in Albany’s Washington Park music swells out of a smartphone speaker as actor and playwright Morgan Heyward lifts her arms into the air and begins to dance.
On this first afternoon of September, she and her director, Gregory Theodore Marsh, have this pocket of the park all to themselves.
Joggers and dog walkers crane their necks occasionally, but the foliage keeps the pair out of view for all but the most adventurous park goers.
Heyward jars to a halt. “I missed the entire section. I can’t get it,” she says, laughing her arms collapsing against her legs with a slight sense of exasperation.
Marsh pauses his iPhone and joins Heyward in a chuckle. “Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of time. You don’t have to have it yet. Lets try it again.”
This past spring Heyward was lost, like the rest of us. The pandemic had her listless and unmoored. The murder of George Floyd stirred a sudden wokeness in local theatre companies that was manifested in social-media statements that made Heyward feel uncomfortable and further marginalized.
Then the calls came from theatre groups she didn’t feel were actually interested in her talents or her story but instead the color of her skin.
Toward the end of her time studying at Russell Sage College Heyward was in a similar position–torn between worlds, left wondering how to be true to herself while pursuing the art form she loves.
The Albany High graduate, daughter of a Black father and a white mother, had never seen herself as she felt she was seen at Sage, where she always felt not quite accepted because of the color of her skin–expected to act white with one group of friends and Black with the other.
Left feeling alienated and dispossessed by the all-too-common racist comments from professors and students that left her alienated and feeling dispossessed.
It was during this time that Heyward wrote “Dear Lil’,” a play that functions as her testimonial as a biracial woman at Sage College.
It’s out of that work that she also founded Illuminate Theatre, a group that gave BIPOC performers and theater neophytes a place to explore their talents.
Illuminate won plaudits and raves and is responsible for giving a number of local creatives room to find their bearings as performers, (not that Heyward would willingly take credit for this). And yet she was still searching, still unsatisfied.
“I had an acting coach tell me that I was trying too hard to play what I thought an agent wanted to see. And that I need to find what’s unique about me,” says Heyward.
In the Moment
In the park, Heyward mimes placing clothes in a box “Someone will always call you out for being too loud, too bold, too black. They tell you that you’re too dumb, too ‘ghetto,’ too poor, too black,” Heyward says, hitting an emotional crescendo in the performance.
And yet it feels as though she’s reading from a list. Moments earlier she was fighting back tears, but now she’s powering through, perhaps quashing her emotion.
Marsh has notes: “Let yourself be here in this moment. This isn’t just a list. If you have to, cry. Let yourself cry. This is so powerful. Don’t fight it. That emotion is what people will connect to.”
Heyward breathes deeply and repositions herself back in front of an imaginary pile of clothes and delivers the lines again, but this time they radiate pain and it looks like she’s lifted the emotional block, she’s experiencing all of this again.
As powerful and conflicting as her time was as a theater major at Sage, it is that very college and its invitation to perform “Dear Lil’” this season that has put Heyward in the space to explore just what makes her unique as an actor.
The invitation was initially conflicting for Heyward. But after consulting with her most trusted friends she realized it was an opportunity that made perfect sense.
“Coming back to Dear Lil’ has let me explore what is unique about me. So my goal now is to just continue to be grateful that I have this gift,” says Heyward.
What makes “Dear Lil’” stand out from so much of locally performed theatre with prominent Black roles is that it doesn’t play with the same set of tropes.
It isn’t perfect for Black History Month.
It doesn’t harp on themes that white audiences have been trained to expect of Black-produced work.
“America loves trauma,” says Heyward. “They love to see the slave broken, beaten down. Everybody loves Tyler Perry because it’s consumable. it’s easy for the majority of people. It’s easy for a lot of white people to watch things like Tyler Perry, because it confirms their idea of black people. It confirms their stereotypes that they’ve made up. And I feel like these raw stories that I’m telling, and a lot of incredible playwrights right now are telling, can be about race, but at the same time can be about that real-life experience of being a human who is also black.”
On Being a Catalyst
Through September, Heyward and Marsh have rehearse and refine through the restriction of the pandemic and partner with Youth FX to film a performance of “Dear Lil’” to be broadcast on Friday, October 16, at 7:30 PM. The play will then be available to stream on Vimeo through November 5.
Revisiting her work has done more for Heyward than give her a better sense of her strengths as an actor. She’s also ready to take Illuminate in a new direction, away from the original cabaret concept to focus instead on being a developing and producing company that amplifies Black voices.
“It’s not Illuminate that inspired all of these people; it’s this collective sense of reconnection to yourself. I think that when you see one person do it, then you know that it’s possible for you to do it. I think that the more we see each other connecting and growing in this community, it’s going to be reinforcement for the next person to do more of it. And if I could be the catalyst for that, that’s awesome,” says Heyward, adding, “ I also think that the community has grown in a way that I can humbly step away. The community is there.”
Feeling that the Capital Region now has a number of welcoming places for Black actors to perform Heyward says she wants to take “Dear Lil” to others who might be inspired by its message.
“My goal is to turn “Dear Lil’” into a touring show and take it to schools, even if it’s digital.”
Heyward says she’d like to follow the play with a workshop and then help students write a letter about their experiences akin to a letter that she reads after her performances of “Dear Lil’.”
Back in Washington Park Marsh narrates the final scene with lines from Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings. “A deep breath fills its small lungs and this time, instead of belting out a fearful trill, it opens its mouth wide, clamps down on the latch and with all her might pulls until the cage door flings open and the world rolls out in front of her.”
“Does she fly? Can she fly?”
Heyward carefully adopts the pose back here again at the dance that has evaded her for the last hour. “Then stretches her arms and leaps and bows, the iPhone providing accompaniment and Marsh still narrating.
Dogs bark, car horns blare, an engine roars.
Her dance is complete. She acts out the final few motions of the last act. Marsh looks up and claps. Heyward has tears in her eyes but her face is shining with a smile.
Tickets for the opening night watch party are available now for $10.