Technology with attitude

CultureMob Exclusive: Naomi Morgan, “My life sucked till I did theater”

0
Naomi Morgan will star in "Rent" at 5th Avenue Theatre (photo Danielle Barnum)

Naomi Morgan is stepping into the biggest role of her life this month as Mimi, the lead role in the heart-tugging musical, Rent, opening July 26th at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. But getting there has meant a lifetime of struggle and heart-ache of her own. Naomi is a triumphant young woman who is making the most of life after being born into some of the most difficult circumstances our country sometimes provides.

“I was born down in the Tacoma area,” Naomi begins. “My dad is a lead singer of a rock band, Xanadu, made up of my dad and my two uncles and a drummer. They’re really well known in Tacoma. I grew up singing a lot of classic rock music with them when I was young.

“My dad is first generation American from Filipino parents. My mom is an American mutt of many Anglo races. My dad was in a band and my mom was a follower in 1982 and they had me. My parents were never married. They never stayed together. My mom’s father is a well-known blues player in Little Bill and the Blue Notes. He’s a drummer.

“I have three sisters and we all have different dads. We’re all really close, though. I grew up about half of the time with my dad and half with my mom. I also went to extended family homes, too, and my grandmother’s when my mom went to jail for drug possession.

“I’m really sad that it happened, but it made me really strong. I’m the oldest of four and was the protecting one. (For instance, one day) the police broke down the door and raided our house for drugs when I was in third grade (8 or 9 years old). I told my sisters to get under the bed and I put pillows around so it looked like it was just me, because I didn’t know who was breaking in. I started to walk toward the door and felt something hard and cold hit my head in the forehead and it was a gun. A policewoman said, ‘Freeze.’ I told my sisters they could come out because it was the police. That was when I realized I had to be the backbone for my sisters and my mom.”

Naomi continues to describe how she, as a tiny girl, ended up taking care of her family. “I couldn’t accept that this was going to be our world and our life… I didn’t want to be trash at the bottom and I wanted us to matter in the world. I taught myself how to be classy, how to learn and then lead by example, and educate my sisters and my mom. My maternal instincts kicked in a lot. My mom would sleep all day, so if we smelled, I’d run a bath. I learned how to cook. I was smart in school and helped my sisters with their homework. My sisters and I would steal food to keep food in the house. My mother had learned how to steal groceries from her mother.

“When my mom went to jail, we ended up at my mother’s mom and my dad won custody of me and a sister. From 4th to 7th grade, I was with my dad. That was when I learned about classic rock. He played classical guitar and I learned classical music, too. At this point, I was running with gang members and drug dealers, in 7th grade. My mom was trying to clean up and work two jobs. We had a drive-by, and after that we got evicted.

“I got arrested for running away. I got pregnant at 15. He was a neighbor boy and was my high school boyfriend. He was also 15. He was chronically abusive. I moved in with him and his family, but they are all chronically abusive. I had my daughter, and was periodically thrown out and couch-surfed with my parents or other people, but left the baby there.”

Naomi continued to have a tumultuous life, but made sure to finish high school. Keeping a job proved difficult. “I got fired a lot due to having a boyfriend who kept calling jobs and getting me fired by his harassment. I became a stripper. It was easy, and I started making money, learned about Las Vegas and went to Las Vegas to make a lot of money. I started doing drugs, so I had to quit stripping.

“I started working in a mall. There was a singing contest in the mall and I entered it. It was a 5th Avenue Theatre singing contest and Bill Berry (director of Rent and the (prior) Associate Artistic Producing Director and (now) Producing Director) saw me there and gave me my first singing job in their Adventure Musical Theater program, their educational outreach that travels to elementary schools. This was 2004.

“I didn’t know what a musical was, at all. I didn’t know about sheet music or what ‘stage left’ or ‘stage right’ was. I watched Disney movies, but didn’t know anything else about musicals. I didn’t even know about Broadway! Bill hooked me up with a musical theater coach, and told me about dance classes at the 5th and audition classes that he taught. In general, he kept telling me to work on my skills. He’s been very confident in me, as long as I did my homework and learn the things I needed.

“That changed me internally more than I ever realized at the time. It let me know that I could do something of value. When that happened, I joined my first band, got an agent, starting performing. The 5th cast me in West Side Story, my first mainstage show. I was Rosalia (one of the Shark girls). Doing that, I got to audition and do shows at Village Theatre. I (found I) could balance living a healthy lifestyle. I have been drug-free for a long time, now.”

Naomi is also proud of the progress the rest of her family has made in recent years. “I started feeling better about myself and making good choices. My family also was able to change significantly. My mom and my sisters have all worked hard, graduated high school, my mom has worked at the same job for several years and I’m really proud of all of them.”

Naomi has a big challenge taking on the lead role of Mimi in Rent. The musical is about a small gang of artists and musicians who live in a rundown and cheap area of New York City that gives them the opportunity to pursue their art while barely paying rent. However, almost all of the characters in the show also have HIV or AIDS. When the musical debuted in 1996, it was a sensation as a rock opera adaptation by Jonathan Larson of the Puccini opera, La Boheme.

Some of the original Broadway cast made a movie of the musical which, while not thought of as a great movie – since the cast was much older at that point than the original early 20s they were supposed to be – at least is a cinematic record of their roles. The cast album was widely sold and the Broadway production won a number of Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

The 5th Avenue’s cast skews younger than usual and includes some of the up-and-coming young singer/performers in Seattle, some of whom, like Eric Ankrim and Kirsten deLohr Helland, have experienced lead roles and are back in the hard-working ensemble for this production (a common aspect of many actors in town).

This is Naomi’s first time as a lead on such a prestigious musical theater stage. “Ensemble deserves a lot of respect. There are many new challenges that I’m facing coming into this as a lead, but they’re different challenges. The ensemble works so hard. Coming into this, there’s a different responsibility and pressure and expectation. I have to make sure every moment on stage that I am feeling everything that Mimi is feeling, and if I drop that, I drop the ball. That has been my biggest challenge, and biggest difference.

“Rent is changing my life. It’s given me the opportunity of exploring emotions that I never even knew I had. It’s helping me bring Mimi to life. The people in the cast and Bill Berry are so talented and everyone is so good and everyone deserves respect for making bold choices. Every intern is brilliant. The 5th Avenue, in general, the staff is so supportive. You feel support from everyone there for this production.

“I’m so grateful that I’ve had somebody like Bill Berry, who was in a position of power, believe in me when I was nothing and it made so much of a difference. It completely changed my path, helped me to change my own life.”

Another difference Naomi is finding is the public exposure. “Out of rehearsal, there are a lot of people excited to talk to me as a lead. I get a lot more social attention. I was walking to my car after rehearsal and there were some girls around the theater and they asked if I was the girl who was doing Rent. I started laughing and said no. That was so dumb, but I was embarrassed. It makes me a little nervous, but I think I can get used to that.”

Rent begins previews on July 21 and continues to August 19. For more information, go to www.5thavenue.org or call 206-625-1900.