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‘The voice of Rites and Reason’: Prof. Terry-Morgan to retire in June 2023

Colleague, students reflect on Elmo Terry-Morgan’s impact, passion for theater

<p>In the early 2000s, Terry-Morgan was working with six students on independent studies that focused on Black theater and LGBTQ themes. Through these projects, Terry-Morgan created his class AFRI 0990: “Black Lavender: Black Gay/Lesbian Plays/Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre,” which he cites as one of his most impactful accomplishments at the University.</p><p>Courtesy of Kathy Moyer</p>

In the early 2000s, Terry-Morgan was working with six students on independent studies that focused on Black theater and LGBTQ themes. Through these projects, Terry-Morgan created his class AFRI 0990: “Black Lavender: Black Gay/Lesbian Plays/Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre,” which he cites as one of his most impactful accomplishments at the University.

Courtesy of Kathy Moyer

When Kathy Moyer, stage and production manager at the Department of Africana Studies and Rites and Reason Theatre, was asked to characterize her longtime co-worker, the theater’s artistic director Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, three words came to mind.

“Mentor, artist, visionary.”

Terry-Morgan began his time at the University in 1970 and was among the original cohort of students who worked with late Professor George Houston Bass — former personal secretary of Langston Hughes and executor of the poet’s estate — in developing the Rites and Reason Theatre, a research and development theater that produces creative works centered around the experiences of members of the African Diaspora.

Following his graduation from the University, Terry-Morgan stayed in touch with fellow alums and members of the theater. Over the next two decades, Terry-Morgan frequently commuted back and forth between his home in Greenburgh, N.Y. and Providence to help with theater projects before ultimately coming to the University as a professor in 1991.

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More than 30 years later, Terry-Morgan has decided to step back from his role at the theater and will retire from his current position at the University in June 2023. The Herald spoke with Terry-Morgan and several of his colleagues and students about his time and impact.

“In every moment I've spent with” Terry-Morgan, said Eric Gottlieb ’25, a current research assistant at the theater, “I've been impressed by the level of dedication, hard work and genuine enthusiasm he has for his craft.”

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Terry-Morgan remembers feeling uncertain about whether or not he possessed the necessary credentials to best serve the theater as its artistic director when he was first recruited to join the University in an official capacity in 1991. Despite his personal doubts, he decided to take the position.

Moyer emphasized that Terry-Morgan was more than qualified for the role. Terry-Morgan “has been a staple (at the theater) in my existence here,” she said. “He is incredibly creative, talented and a great teacher.”

Jason Tristan Brown ’23, who met Terry-Morgan during his first year at the University, added that Terry-Morgan is a “wise, insightful and … gracious soul.”

As a first-year, “I sat in his Playwriting I class during shopping period in a room full of eager upperclassmen with hopes of scoring a spot in his renowned course,” Brown said. “Little did I know, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Over the next several years, Brown said Terry-Morgan enriched not just his academic pursuits, but his personal ones as well.

“As my mentor, (Terry-Morgan) helped me cultivate my skills in creating Afrofuturistic plots in the live theatrical form,” he said. “And as a good friend, (Terry-Morgan) helped me understand how to be an excellent Black man.” 

Throughout his career, Terry-Morgan has specialized in rethinking theater as both a performance and study. Terry-Morgan said that one of the most fulfilling projects within his time at the University was the creation of his class AFRI 0990: “Black Lavender: Black Gay/Lesbian Plays/Dramatic Constructions in the American Theatre,” one of the first courses in the country to explore Black LGBTQ experiences at the university level.

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The inspiration for the course came to Terry-Morgan in the early 2000s from multiple students engaged in research projects focused on Black theater and LGBTQ themes.

“I had like six independent studies all working on the same thing and I thought, ‘This makes no sense,’ ” he said. “Meeting once a week with six different people? Yeah, this is a course.”

Largely through word of mouth, Terry-Morgan said that “the course finally started growing.”

For Terry-Morgan, the course was more than a mere area of study. Through partnership with the LGBTQ Center, Terry-Morgan worked on projects that sought to amplify Black, queer voices across the world of theater.

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“It’s hard for any playwright to put on a production. It’s harder for all Black people,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to do something.”

Archiving Rites and Reason history

Aside from the development of “Black Lavender,” Terry-Morgan cites his efforts to archive the Rites and Reason Theatre as another one of his largest projects at the University.

“I started focusing on (archiving the theater) in the summer of 2011,” Terry-Morgan said. “I saw that we had all of these VHS tapes laying around and I (decided) that we needed to protect them, otherwise one day they’ll all just crumble.”

“We had to take the old media and digitize it,” he explained.

According to Terry-Morgan, the process was not easy. But with the help of Giovi Gastaldi, associate director of media services, the theater slowly started the process of preserving its history. 

Media services "has digitized everything — every single file so that we can have that backlog of DVDs,” Terry-Morgan said.

Terry-Morgan also emphasized the importance of accessibility in his vision for the Rites and Reason Theatre archive. “Most of these archives and universities have all of these papers and boxes,” he said. “I didn’t want to give the library a box of tapes and then have them take it and put it in a coffin.”

“I want sort of an online, digital research archive museum, so that people can go to the Brown websites, click on Africana (studies) and it’ll take you to the archive,” he said. “I wanted that kind of archive that people can discover.”

Terry-Morgan said that he hopes better public engagement will help the theater move “into a new era.”

Throughout his 30-year tenure at the University, which included numerous other projects with the Rites and Reason Theatre, Terry-Morgan has earned the reputation of an innovative leader and thinker among his colleagues and students.

Terry-Morgan’s leadership style is “smooth, like making jazz,” Moyer said. “And that means that he adapts to whatever is needed from him in the moment.”

Moyer added that Terry-Morgan holds “a lot of institutional knowledge” that will be challenging to replace.

“We’re looking for the right person to become the new artistic director,” she said. “Somebody who gets the theater and the importance of its history and the work we do to bring voice to all types of people with all kinds of backgrounds.”

"Professor Terry-Morgan is the voice of the Rites and Reason Theatre,” Gottlieb said. “He's one of the people I admire most at Brown. I'm very grateful to have had the chance to work for him."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly states that Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74 kept in touch with University contacts following his matriculation from the University. In fact, it was his graduation. The Herald regrets the error.


Sofia Barnett

Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.



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