A newly formed group of Black theater professionals is offering $200 micro-grants to Black artists in Philadelphia.

The money can be used for anything, whether it’s to pay a bill or help fund a new project, said Garrick Morgan, a member of the steering committee of the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia, in an interview Tuesday. “The only requirement is that you are a Black theater artist. We are looking to truly engage the disparity [of opportunity] that has happened for Black artists within the greater Philadelphia area — anyplace within a 50-mile radius of City Hall — to bridge that gap and to help provide support where resources have before been lacking.”

There’s money so far to fund 20 grants, which will be distributed through PayPal. The group hopes to raise more to expand the program, said Morgan. To apply or to donate, visit blacktheatrephiladelphia.org/micro-grant.

In addition, the alliance is conducting surveys of Black artists and their allies, “gathering data about artists in the area and what it is that they do and what experiences that they’re having,” said Morgan, an actor, singer, and voice teacher who performs as Garrick Vaughan. The goal is to offer other resources, including mentorships. Ultimately, the group “is really geared toward supporting not just Black artists, but Black art. So that includes theaters, that includes playwrights, that includes shows, whatever those entities are that center around Black art and Black artists.”

Unmet needs and unequal opportunity

One thing that’s been seen in the surveys so far is that there are a sizable number of Black artists whose work is in technical areas, he said. “But there’s not a lot of assets for training outside of college, there’s not a lot of assets for mentorship. While actors have other actors they can connect with ... it’s not as simple for, say, a stage manager or for a lighting designer or for a set builder.”

The alliance, which officially formed Aug. 1, grew out of discussions that began in June. “We are witnessing a moment where artists and individuals generally are gathering to say, you know, enough is enough,” Morgan said, citing “an imbalance in opportunity for Black artists.” What’s now being said publicly “are things that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] artists have been having in behind closed doors” for some time.

Besides Morgan, the group’s steering committee includes LaNeshe Miller-White, cofounder of Theatre in the X and the new executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, along with actor and playwright Ang Bey; Newton Buchanan, an actor and cofounder of Delaware’s New Light Theatre; Walter DeShields, an actor and co-artistic director of Theatre in the X; Ardencie Hall-Karambe, an English and theater professor at Community College of Philadelphia and artistic director of Kaleidoscope Cultural Arts Collective; stage manager Noelle Diane Johnson; actor Lindsay Smiling; actor Tai Verley; and actor Brian Anthony Wilson.

The COVID-forced shutdown of theaters has kept Morgan, who graduated from Temple University in 2014, in Philadelphia more than usual. He qualified to join Actors Equity last summer, but got much of the required experience on the road, both in the U.S. and Europe. “It’s the wildest thing. I was originally supposed to go to California for a show and then COVID broke, and I was here. ... I’ve not been home for longer than about a month at a time for the last three years,” said the actor, whose local credits include Theatre Horizon’s Barrymore Award-winning production of The Color Purple.

Morgan, who’s been giving private, socially distanced voice lessons during the shutdown, studied music education and vocal performance at Temple. He “had zero intention of ever being on stage for anything” beyond what was required for his degree, until his final year, when “I kind of got pulled into the musical theater department to do a show or two.”

Garrick Morgan, an actor, singer, and voice teacher who performs as Garrick Vaughan, leading his outdoor, socially distanced class.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Garrick Morgan, an actor, singer, and voice teacher who performs as Garrick Vaughan, leading his outdoor, socially distanced class.

He counts himself lucky that after graduation, there were “people who were very supportive of me being in theater who kind of held my hand along the way” and that through his own “hands-on” experience, he learned the nuts and bolts of being a working actor. “I learned about what it took to join the the actors’ union, the Actors’ Equity Association, I learned about negotiating my contracts ... practices that a lot of students who went to college [to be performers] were asking me about.”

Being able to pass on those tools to other Black artists is “super-important,” he said.

Artists now may be taking day jobs that, along with grants like those the alliance and other arts groups are offering, are helping them to get by until theaters reopen, Morgan said. He’s concerned, though, with what will happen when theaters do.

It’s important “to really challenge theaters to broaden their gaze and open their doors to a more collective, diverse experience of actors and performers,” he said. “I would not be where I am had it not been for people who had been willing to open that door and see beyond the Black actor who can sing the gospel things [to] the Black actor who also has an opera background and who did not have all the ... credits but has been given this opportunity to do XYZ role that is not traditionally cast as Black. That needs to be a door that opens up more consistently in the theater world, particularly here in Philadelphia.”