The Ensemble Theatre virtually ‘feed souls’ of the community with one pot of gumbo

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By: N. L. Preston

 HOUSTON — “We are all in this together. This pot of gumbo is to feed everybody,” said Eileen Morris, artistic director for Houston’s legendary The Ensemble Theatre.

In times of darkness, historically, African Americans turn to arts and expressions to get them through. Either through song, dance or even comedy, Blacks culturally tap into their creative souls to lift their spirits.

You can see it playing out on social media today while almost the entire world is self-quarantining and social distancing during the COVID-19 / Coronavirus pandemic. People have invited the public directly into their homes as they post TikTok videos of them dancing, making up their own “Coronavirus” songs — some of which have gone viral — and even world famous DJs and singers are hosting virtual happy hours and concerts, inviting people to sing along, dance and, in essence, fellowship together to get them through the trying times.

And keeping up with the ‘new normal,’ The Ensemble Theatre is jumping into the virtual world, providing arts and expression as a method of much-needed therapy for its staff, volunteers and the community.

“Both African Americans and artists are survivors, period. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand what art does and they take it for granted, but we are all painters, musicians, actors, writers, singers in our own ways and personal journeys,” Morris said. “None of this is going to be easy. What is happening today is going to have its own set of challenges, even for The Ensemble. Although we’ve had to cancel our last three shows of the season and our gala, we have created an online presence.”

The theatre company has adapted to the nation’s new social distancing norms by launching The Ensemble Theatre BOLD Online Series: The Story Continues! on April 6. The dedicated artists from the theatre will host workshops, showcase online performances, words of encouragement chat sessions, readings for children, etc., all which can be viewed for free. There will be Message Mondays, Throwback Theatre Moments Thursdays and Family Fun Fridays, for starters.

“We are creating other stories now that are going to be engaging to our audiences and connect. We want to let everyone know that we are still here – The Ensemble is 43 years old — and because of the commitment our community has made to us by coming to see our plays and supporting us, we want to let the world know that the work still continues,” Morris said.

Aside from work, Morris is keeping her personal life balanced, using the time “away from the office” to keep her beloved family safe.

To stay healthy – mind, body and spirit – Morris takes a daily walk with her 87-year-old mother, Imelda Benson.

 “We live in Acres Home so we live on an acre. We walk that acre maybe one and half times every day. We do some stretches just to keep our mental health going and to keep us physically OK so that nothing happens,” Morris said. “It’s been good to spend that time with my mom that I don’t usually get to spend because I’m usually in a rehearsal, working or doing the things that we normally don’t get to do.”

Morris’ mother, who will turn 88 in just a few months, is an active woman and Morris was initially worried the self-isolation would take its toll on her, but it has not.

“She still drives, she likes to go to the game rooms, the holes in the walls, the Home Depot and Lowes buying plants to plant in the yard. I didn’t know how I was going to keep her in the house, but God worked it out, she’s been OK,” Morris explained.

She hopes that we will take this pandemic as a lesson and all come out on top, adjusting to our ‘new normal,’ whatever that may be.

“It’s a resurgent of energy! That’s why you see people online reading their poetry, writing and performing from their homes, because it is the resilience of trying to keep going,” Morris said.

The new season is expected to begin September 2020 and runs through August 2021.

“Prior to all this happening, we had some really exciting plays set up for next year. We are looking to use the plays we already had and aligning those with the plays that we had to cancel and, due to our online presence, broadening what the Ensemble offers, bringing a new audience to the theatre.”

ABOUT BOLD Online Series: The Story Continues!

Support for the online series comes from The BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle, a grant funded by the Pussycat Foundation established by the late Cosmopolitan Editor-In-Chief Helen Gurley Brown. Other major supporters include: City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, The Brown Foundation, Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts, Chevron, Enbridge, Houston Endowment, ExxonMobil, The Humphreys Foundation, Shell, Spindletop, TDECU, Texas Commission on the Arts, and United Airlines.

The Ensemble is making sure to provide resources for its artists. Donations can be made at www.EnsembleHouston.com.

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For information, contact boxoffice@ensemblehouston.com.