My next guest on INTERVUE is an accomplished actress whose work includes “The Jesse Owens Story”, “Eve’s Bayou” and “Power” and one of my favorite soaps, “All My Children”. In fact, in 1989, she was the first African American woman to win the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. She has taken her memoir and created a one woman show that will be presented at the Bowie State Fine and Performing Arts Center October 21-22. We have the wonderful and talented, Debbi Morgan.
How are you doing, Debbi?
Debbi: I’m great Dean, I’m great, thanks for asking.
You’re welcome. I’m glad to have you here on “The Intervue”. As I said a few moments ago, “All My Children” is one of my favorite all-time soaps and I really miss it to this day.
Oh yes, so do I, so do I. It was one of my favorites too! (laughs)
Wonderful! Let’s start by talking about your memoir, “Monkey on My Back”, which you talked about a deep, personal subject to you, domestic violence. I’d like to know what is the genesis of writing a memoir in the first place?
Well, you know, one of the things that was very helpful and is helping me get through that emotional psychological trauma was writing my memoir because, it was, you know, it was very cathartic. And it allowed me to sort of step outside of myself and look in and see a look in and see a lot of the things I was doing, like looking outside myself for someone else to take care of me when I really had to look inward, and so it was writing that book, also writing my one-woman show that I was… and I also went through a lot of therapy too, which actually helped me to come full circle. I also wrote the book which spans three generations of women in my family living with physically and emotionally abusive men, it’s sort of my paying tribute to them to these women and also my ultimate goal was paying homage to my mother.
Well, that’s really good. What was the moment you realized you wanted to take your memoir and turn it into a live performance? I’ve seen a few people have done that over the past several years, they’re taking a personal story and making it into a one person show. I want you to tell us about that process.
Well, you know, I never had it in my mindset to write a play about my life, especially after writing a book. But I was speaking at this event one evening in Virginia, at this girls’ organization, and I decided to read a few passages, and when I left the stage, this woman approached me and she had tears in her eyes, and she said, “Ms. Morgan, I just want you to know that I have two teenage daughters, and they have been watching their father physically, verbally and emotionally abuse me all of their lives and after listening to some of your story this evening, I don’t care what it takes, I’m not keeping them in that house one more day.” And that statement struck such a cord in me because I thought, “you know it’s one thing to sit in the privacy of their own homes and read my book, but it’s quite another for them to come to this theater and share my journey,” and I always say, in the words of Diana Ross, I might be able to reach out and touch and connect with them in a much more personal and intimate level and, you know, if I was able to just change even one life, like listening to that woman, just getting one person out of such a horrific situation, then I was delighted to share my story in that way. And that was the impetus for me making the decision to do a one-woman show. I’d never thought about that before.
Well, I’m so proud that you were able to take your memoir and create a one-woman show, especially based on your life. And it’s a rarity that a performer that does a one-person show for about two hours. How do you prepare for it, and is it difficult playing multiple characters on one stage?
Well, you know, I prepare like I do for any role that I take on. I mean, even though it’s based on my life, it’s still a play, and there is a script. So, I had to study all the lines I had actually written and learn them well so I wouldn’t veer off down another lane because I had forgotten what I was saying. I remember my director said to me once, “now, if you get stuck, you know, you can ad-lib because this is your life, but you certainly can’t ad-lib the entire play” (laughs)
(laughs) No, you definitely can’t do that!
(laughs) I still had to remember what I had to say. You know, I also had to make strong choices about the way that I presented these people so that the audience would come to know them as well as I did since these are all real people and not fictional characters. I think probably the biggest difficulty, Dean, was being naked. I mean, of course I don’t mean that I’m actually naked on stage.
Of course, of course.
I don’t want people to come rushing to the show thinking they’re gonna see me in the buff! (laughs)
(laughs) But you know, it was exposing myself in that way. I didn’t have to face anyone but being onstage, you feel totally naked and exposed and initially it was quite terrifying. It’s not always easy when I do this reliving so much of that pain and, you know, and finding myself in those scary moments once again. And, you know, portraying these people, unlike when I’m doing fictional characters, where, you know, you have to set up and define and imagine based on the script how you want these characters to be, being that these were all real people, so I knew them, you know, I knew them. They were in my life for many years. So, it was about just making a clear, defined picture of them so that, like I said, the audience would know them as well as I did, or as well as I do.
And I just, you know, would like to add to, because you know a lot of people might think that coming to see a play that deals a lot with physical and emotional abuse, they might think they’re coming to see a play that’s gonna be all sad and depressing, but it’s quite the opposite. I mean, there’s a fine balance. There are some really sad moments, but a lot of the show is filled with laughter and surprise with the twisting and turns it takes. I say that because a lot of my journey was filled with laughter because laughter got me through a lot of the pain. You know, and so I’ve heard that comment before, where people say, “oh, I don’t want to feel that way for two hours and be sad and depressed” so, you know, I just want you to know that it’s not a full two hours of being sad and depressed; there will be, you know, many uplifting moments, and it’s also, you know, abuse is mostly male oriented. Not to say that men can’t ever be abused, but for the most part it’s for the women. But I don’t want men to come to the play or either stay away thinking it’s completely male bashing.
It’s not that either.
Understandable. I mean, but sometimes, taking an uncomfortable subject and presenting it on a stage make the best performances, especially, most recently, I saw revival of “Death of a Salesman” and just to see the actors perform on that stage with such powerful performances, it’s like it could really touch a person in ways that, you know, they never thought possible and evoke those emotions.
Mm-hm, mm-hm. Yes, absolutely
Indeed. I’d like to know what you hope people take away after seeing your play.
You know, Dean, people look at celebrities as having these wonderful, great lives, you know. And some of them do, of course. There are a lot of accolades and perks that can come along with this profession, but some of them don’t, which we’ve witnessed quite often. I want people to take away that no matter who you are, what kind of career you have, your race, religion, your income, we’re all in this thing called life together. I had a strong desire in writing this book and doing this play to be my authentic self. Not the person people thought they knew, watching me play Angie on “All My Children” for decades. I remember I did this wonderful interview with Oprah, and Oprah said two things that really stuck out to me. The first thing she said was, “Debbi, when you first came on “All My Children”, I would look at you through the TV being Angie and think, ‘oh my goodness, if only I could be her!’” Not that she really wanted to be me, but she would look at me and think, “oh, she must have always had the most wonderful, the best life. If only I could’ve had that life.” Now, as she’s saying that, I’m thinking to myself, “no you would not have wanted to have my life!” (laughs)
She also talked about her own difficult childhood growing up. And then, the next thing she said was, “Debbi, after reading your book, of all the actresses that I would’ve thought of that would have had that kind of life, that that would’ve been their life, you would’ve been one of the last people to come to my mind.” You know, so if people could look at me and possibly assume I’ve had this perfect life would see that I’ve struggled for decades to let go of my fears, develop self-esteem, and eventually look to myself, not outside myself to those who have hurt me, and understand why I continue to attract certain people in my life that weren’t for my good.
I want them to take away that if I could do it, so could they, because no matter what their lot in life, living with abuse is the same, no matter who you are.
That is true, that is true. And speaking of Dr. Angela Baxter-Hubbard…
You’re forever known for that on “All My Children”, you and Darnell Williams were the first African-American super couple in daytime soaps. And my question to you is, what do you miss about working on “All My Children”, since I’ve loved “All My Children” and I used to watch it.
I can tell you right off the back, Dean, that it was a job I had to go to everyday. You know, sometimes working in this business, you can be on a roll, and then there are times when the work is few and far in between. But mostly, I miss working with Darnell every day. We became the best of friends. He’s truly like a brother to me, like the brother I never had. He actually gave me away at my wedding.
(astonished) Is that right?
You know, yeah, uh-huh. Yes, he did.
If you go on the internet, you can see pictures of us. You know, it was just quite a special moment and he’s really like part of my family. So that I miss, because we used to—oh my God, we used to have the most fun. I remember the first time Darnell and I realized just how popular we were on that show. Because back in the day, they taped soap operas a lot differently than they do today. Back in the day, we had to be in the studio at like, 7 in the morning and we’d spend the whole day rehearsing the entire show. Sometimes, we wouldn’t start taping until 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. So feasibly…
we could be in the theater, I mean, be in the studio from like 7 in the morning to like 7, 8 o’clock at night, sometimes nine, twelve, thirteen, fourteen hour days. It was exhausting! So, we really never saw anybody, but there was one particular night, it was a Friday night. We just needed to let our hair down, and we decided that we would—Darnell and I, we were gonna go catch a movie.
So, we get to the movies, it’s a bit late, the theater’s dark, people are already seated and watching the film, and eventually we find a couple of seats. The movie’s over, the lights come up, and Darnell and I are going back and forth, trying to decide if we we’re going to get something to eat. And we start to hear this whispering, and then this sort of low rumble seems to be growing.
Then we get a sense of some real excitement around us.
And finally, we hear people…” Is that Angie?? Is that Jesse?? Oh my God! Oh my God, it’s Jesse!!!” It was hysterical! I mean, people, it was like the whole theater converged upon us. People were grabbing at us; girls were trying to rip off Darnell’s shirt.
I was terrified! I had never experienced anything like that in my life! And Darnell grabbed my hand and said, “run Debbi, run!” (laughs)
We’re tearing down the stairs and running down 42nd Street, all these people chasing and screaming after us, “Jesse! Angie! Angie! Jesse!” and Darnell says, “come on, let’s cut through this alley!” So we cut through this alley, and finally we realize we no longer hear footsteps behind us and we turn around and discover we are no longer being followed. And we looked to each other at the same time and we go—excuse my French, this is not what we really said—but we go, “oh shoot!”
Because that was the first time we had a real clue as to just how popular we had become. We were now daytime’s first African American super couple. (laughs)
Yes, absolutely! You gave us a reason to watch “All My Children”, especially, you know, to all the African American men and women who watch soap operas over the years. I’m glad you made history, especially winning the Daytime Emmys in 1989. You were, so far the only African American woman to win Best Supporting Actress since then.
Yeah, yeah. That’s unbelievable to me. I mean, you know, I was quite happy about it, but also kind of sad that all of those years that soaps have been on the air, and there have been some really good work done by African-American actresses on daytime that I would be the only one to, you know, walk away with that award.
Well, hopefully in the future, that will change. I know Victoria Rowell has been nominated numerous times.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to work in the biz, whether as an actor or a writer, or producer—what advice would you give them?
You know, the first thing that I would say is definitely, and I’m sure people have heard this many times, but it is so true. This is such a finicky business. You really, really need to have something to fall back on, and you really have to have a tough skin, because there is so much rejection. You know, unless you kind of just hit it out of the park the first go round and do something that is so major, your big blockbuster movie and make all this money, then it’s probably everything kind of set for you, put you on a whole different path. But if you’re just going the regular route—studying, you know you get into the union, you get your union card, you start going out for auditions, you really have to have a very tough skin. Now, I do say that because I have teenagers and young adults ask me this all the time, “well, this is what I want to do” and I would never negate anybody’s passion. If this is what you want to do, then I say go for it. You really want to study, you really want to learn your craft. But, just in case—there’s always that just in case—it does not pan out, that you really have something else that you can rely on.
That would be my best advice, and I say to young kids, “make sure that you get a good education, go to college. You know, do well in school, because, you know, you become an actress and you’re going to have to learn how to read a script and decipher what you’re reading. Don’t just because you want to be in this business, “well, you know, I can forgo my education.” It’s extremely important.
Absolutely. Education is the key to succeed, especially nowadays. Besides Bowie State University, where else will you be performing your show?
Now, that is such a good question, because now I can’t remember the theater, but I am doing it the week of December 10th in Atlanta.
I’m doing it in Atlanta and I’m also—early next year, I will be doing it—my friend, Richard Lawson and his wife Tina Knowles have just opened a new theater called WACO in Los Angeles, and I’ll be going out there the first of the year to do it as well.
If people want to find you on social media, how can they find you?
Debbi Morgan is bringing her show, The Monkey on My Back” to the Bowie State Fine and Performing Arts Center. Saturday, October 21st at 8 p.m. and Sunday October 22nd at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors and students. And once again, $10 from each ticket will support The Family Crisis Center of Prince George’s County. And if you want more information, go to arts.pgparks.com and click on the B side.