Actor Joe Morton Meditates on Race
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
It was the role that was not meant to be. While waiting for a turn to audition for a film, Joe Morton overheard a famous director berate an actor for “not sounding black.”
Recounting the story to an audience before finishing his term as Fordham's 2012 Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre, Morton said he decided at that moment that he didn’t care if he got the part.
“I said ‘How dare you? What do you know about blackness? How many black people do you know? Do you think the only sound that comes out of our mouths is something southern, something, urban? As many people sitting out there, there are that many kinds of blackness,’’ he said.
Morton joined Isaiah Wooden, a doctoral candidate and director/dramaturg at Stanford University, in “Performing Blackness in Space and Time,” a reading and conversation about black identity, career paths, and the politics of representation.
The freewheeling conversation with Fordham students and faculty, held at MoBia near the Lincoln Center campus, touched on everything from career paths to the difference between the concepts of darkness versus blackness. When one student asked what progress, in terms of blackness, might look like, he suggested progress looks like that event.
Morton, whose breakout role was in the 1984 film Brother From Another Planet,
spoke of auditioning for roles he knew were geared for white actors. While sounding like “the voice of God” contributed to his professional success, he credited it more to training and a childhood spent overseas with his father, an Army captain. More than anyone, Morton said, his father contributed to his developing an authoritative- sounding voice.
Isaiah Wooden, Joe Morton and moderator Darnell Moore
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
When his father died, however, the family was forced to move to New York City, where his voice became more of an impediment than an asset. Attending school with other black children, he said, sometimes led to fights.
“I went from Dachau in Germany to 155th Street in Harlem, and I had this voice where no one could tell where I had come from,” he said. “I had done things that they considered ‘white.’ I’d lived in Europe, I dressed differently, my voice was different, and my experiences—while similar in sort of fighting the good fight—were different from theirs.”
Reflecting on his semester at Fordham, the veteran actor said it was terrifying at first because it was the first time that he had ever taught a class. In his class, “Creating A Character,” Morton emphasized five questions that each actor has to ask himself/herself when approaching a role: Who am I? Where am I going? Who do I expect to meet? What do I want? And, To what extent am I willing to go to get what I want?
The biggest challenge was teaching students techniques that he uses instinctively.
“You have to take several moments to figure out, ‘What exactly do I do?’ It’s like asking somebody to walk across the room. How do you put one foot in front of the other? What’s that process?” he said.
“Everything else in between is what I do instinctually. I then had to explain [that] to 14 students in the classroom. That is where it got prickly, because you don’t want to come across as someone who has the answer, because there is no ‘the answer.’ There is an answer, or a series of choices and options you can give them, and that’s what you finally have to come to.”
The class became more fun as the semester progressed, he said, and as he and the students became more comfortable. One of their final assignments was doing monologues that students could use for auditions.
“I’m hearing feedback from them, things like, ‘Well, I’ve asked all the questions I’m supposed to ask,’” he said.
“So they’re actually doing [the] work, which was what I wanted. When they walk out of school, they’ll have a very clear technique of how to approach [acting].”
The event was organized by Aimee Cox, Ph.D., assistant professor of performance and African and African American Studies and sponsored by the African and African American Studies Department
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre at Heythrop College in the United Kingdom.