HOUSTON -- "Floyd's a lot like me: he's a dreamer," remarks Alex Allen Morris about Floyd "Schoolboy" Baron, the pivotal character in August Wilson's Seven Guitars, which continues at the Alley Theatre in Houston through March 14. "Schoolboy makes mistakes," Morris observes, "but his intentions are honorable. He wants to bring everyone he cares for with him. I'm like that too."
But Schoolboy is also a bit of a rogue, a blues guitarist driven to small crimes and petty affairs even as he wants to be decent. Morris, on the other hand, is decent: warm, humble, and down-to-earth. "We share passion," Morris specifies, "Schoolboy for his music and me for my acting."
Trained as a nurse, Alex Allen Morris came to acting by chance after moving to Houston with his wife in 1981. He honed his craft with years at small venues. The practice has paid off; Morris is a member of the Alley resident company, a full-time salaried performer. (His wife, Eileen Morris, is artistic director of The Ensemble Theatre, the only professional African-American troupe in Houston.) So accomplished is he becoming that when Vanessa Redgrave recently mounted Antony and Cleopatra at the Public Theater in New York, she insisted he reprise the role of Enobarbus which he had played when she first staged the Shakespearean history at the Alley in 1996.
Often praised for his charisma, Morris most readily shares with Schoolboy a certain energetic magnetism, a live-wire dynamism. "Well," Morris says modestly, "every night I earn my living by doing what I love. I guess it shows. I'm so grateful." However, Morris reveals that he's realizing how to let larger-than-life characters speak for themselves. "If the part is well-written, I don't need to add anything; I'm growing as an actor by learning to rely on plays like these to do the work."
A co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre (where it played this past January), Seven Guitars continues Wilson's exploration of the African-American experience decade by decade in the twentieth century. This addition to the cycle takes place in Pittsburgh, 1948. An ensemble of voices, it centers on Floyd "Schoolboy" Baron (played by Morris), a blues guitarist from Pittsburgh pursuing a recording contract in Chicago. Friends and lovers, neighbors and band mates converge and diverge as Schoolboy, a ne'er-do-well with a good heart, tries to get his professional and personal lives in order. About the only difference between the Alley and Seattle Rep has been the audience. "The Alley crowds aren't as large. However, while 80 to 90 percent of the crowds were white in Seattle, more African-Americans are coming in Houston."
In one company or another, most prominently the Alley and The Ensemble, and most improbably at the English Theatre of Frankfurt, Germany, Morris has acted in or directed all but one of Wilson's plays. Morris attended one of the (in)famous Wilson-Brustein debates. And Morris has met Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright sitting in on rehearsals in Seattle. Morris sees Wilson as a universal playwright who just happens to be writing from an African-American experience. He told this to Wilson, who apparently smiled.
Seven Guitars continues through March 14 at the Alley Theatre in Houston. For tickets, $31-$46, call (713) 228-8421
-- By Peter Szatmary