By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Conley
Eileen J. Morris grew up in a small country town called Pembroke Township in Illinois. Her parents wanted all six of their children in a place that gave them space, provided them a different environment than the city, and most of all, kept them safe.
Morris grew up in Catholic schools and was raised Catholic. Her parents sent each one of her siblings including herself to Catholic schools so they would have “better opportunities and make a difference in the world.” In order to offset the cost of tuition, Morris and her siblings would clean the church on Saturdays.
Her love for theater and the arts started at a young age. At one time, she aspired to be a nun due to the Catholic influence growing up. However, things changed for Morris in the 5th grade when her view of the world changed, and she thought she had “a lot more to offer being in the arts.” She started auditioning for school plays in elementary school and even obtained the role as Snow White, even though there were some people who were against her playing the character since she was not White. Despite the challenges, she received the role because she was the best person for the part.
Morris graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in Illinois in 1974. She then attended Northern Illinois University (NIU) where she majored in Theater Arts Comprehensive. She graduated from NIU in 1977. After college, she got married and had her son in 1980. A year later she moved to Houston with her husband. Since both of her parents were from Houston, she traveled to Houston often. On one of her previous trips, she met the founder of The Ensemble Theater, the late George Hawkins. He told her, “When you’re ready to live here, let me know.”
She started volunteering at The Ensemble Theater and in 1982, Hawkins hired her as his Managing Director and Touring Education person. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Morris reflected. She served as the Managing Director until his passing in 1990. She then became the interim Artistic Director and shortly after the official Artistic Director. She served in this role until 1999.
Life then took Morris to Pittsburgh, PA where she received the opportunity to work with Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, founder and Artistic Director of Kuntu Repertory Theatre, where she served as the Managing Director. In 2006, she left Pittsburgh and returned to The Ensemble Theater as the Artistic Director.
When it comes to the arts, Morris loves the opportunity to tell varied stories. “I love creating a platform for African American artists to have their voices heard.” She also loves the discovery process of what they do and what happens when the artists and the creative team come together. In addition, her soul is happy when the audience can make connections to the work of art stating, “I love when audiences see a play and they talk about that shared experience that they have. That human experience that touches their lives.”
Morris further provided more information on the mission of The Ensemble Theater. “We’re doing plays from the African American perspective and that’s hugely important for me. If we don’t tell our story, who will tell them, and will it come from the life experience of being black?”
She further stated, “We have to tell those stories, and we have to make sure they are told in a way that represents the culture but are also human stories.” Human stories are important so that people can connect and relate to them.
When discussing the current status of African Americans in theater, Morris mentioned how things have shifted. “In the Black theater movement, you’re seeing how European culture is incorporating diversity in the communities we serve and not being done just during Black history month. You’re looking at plays that speak to those experiences. It’s being done because the community is diverse and multicultural. We want those communities and institutions to know that this is how we are and what we breathe and do every day. We are constantly making sure that we are paving the way and creating a platform that incorporates the artists, the audiences, and all of our community, and that the community is served in the most diverse way.”
Outside of The Ensemble Theater, Morris is a part of various organizations. She serves as secretary on the board of the Theatre Communications Group, a consulting board member of the Black Theatre Network, and serves as an advisory board member of the Houston Cinema Arts Society. In addition, Morris is newly appointed to the Ion District Community Benefits Agreement-Community Advisory Council. Being a part of these organizations is “how we maintain and stay connected in our community and it brings the work that we do together.”
Morris has also won several awards, has produced over 87 productions, which include eight world premieres and over 64 regional premieres. It was noted that she is the only woman in the country to direct eight plays of the August Wilson Ten Play Cycle.
When it comes to legacy, she wants it to be centered on how she viewed life. Morris reflected on a quote by August Wilson stating, “Art does not change the world, it changes people and people change the world. I think I would want my legacy and when they think about the art I’ve created over the years. We came from a place of honesty, truth, we’ve come from the realness of who we are as human beings. We come from being black, and we’re unapologetically black and making sure our voices are heard.”