In 2014 Trey Morehouse founded Mouths of Babes (MoB), a young-adult theatre company in Raleigh, NC, focused on creating engaging, interactive and innovative theatre for high-school and college students. A graduate of UNCW, Morehouse devised a telling docu-play, “The Diary Play,” which focuses on young people and their daily diary entries on life.
“The play illustrates our style and mission better than another play might,” Morehouse says. “It’s an experimental concept, and concerns issues relevant to teens and young adults in the voice of teens and young adults.”
Morehouse moved his theatre company to Wilmington, which is now a collaborative effort with UNCW’s theatre department, many of whom, including Dr. Charles Grimes, serve on MoB’s board. As well, ties to UNCW allows the theatre company to directly involve college students in various capacities with the high schoolers for every performance.
“I’ve always remembered Wilmington being a community welcoming of community engagement and innovation, and I don’t think that’s changed,” Morehouse says. “A large part of our mission is creating mentorship opportunities . . . finding ways to engage young professionals and giving them experience and leadership positions as they prepare to apply for competitive jobs and grad school.”
Winner of Wilmington Arts Council’s Grassroots Grant, Mouths of Babe will debut locally and publicly with Morehouse’s “The Diary Play,” as part of Cucalorus Stage. Though the show’s content may be centered on youth, it’s not without heavy-hitting merit. In fact, Morehouse’s original text has grown into deeper meaning over the two years since he completed it.
“The meaning and ‘why’ of the play has changed and become more specific for me since then,” he tells. “We’re in the era of ‘locker room talk’ vs. the ‘#metoo’ movement. Women’s issues are more present and talked about now more than they’ve been in at least the last 20 years or so in our culture. By placing the voices of four young women onstage, we are saying these are important voices worth listening to, now more than ever.”
The play grapples with questions that continue to plague our culture over again. It asks the value of self-worth, the foundation of finding self-esteem, how to devise healthy relationships, and how to heal and grow.
“One of the four young diary writers in the play is a survivor of sexual assault,” Morehouse explains. “It corresponds with the statistic that one in four college women report surviving sexual assault at some point in their lives. That’s what a culture of ‘locker room talk’ looks like and it’s worth talking about.”
Morehouse decided upon the genre of documentary theatre from his love of doc filmmaking and the use of experimental aesthetics. The performers, for instance, are reading diaries verbatim, without embellishments. Audiences are informed from the root and heart of their words, which also paint the picture of their background—whether it’s Elizabeth experiencing first love, Galina dreaming of a better life in America, away from her hometown of Turkmenistan, Pam’s thoughts on a Peter Frampton concert, or Susanne, a struggling actor and Christian.
After giving a lot of thought to documents and representations of teens, the diary seemed a natural place to begin the story. “I never faithfully kept a diary myself,” Morehouse admits, “but I was always fascinated by people who did. I remember really marveling at the special mind it takes to faithfully write the events of your life every day.”
Instead, Morehouse asked four of his friends to send him their diaries. Dr. Grimes reached out to the mother of one of his former students for a diary, too, in order to hone in on “moments [that] make us become who we turn out to be.”
“The play also asserts that every moment of one’s experience is somehow worthwhile,” Dr. Grimes continues, “even if we look back at a previous period of our lives and wonder why we did what we did or worried about what we worried about . . . we wanted to remind everyone that young people are truth-tellers. Their experience is valuable and meaningful.”
The production is minimalistic. Actors and words carry the weight. It’s something Morehouse says ties in wonderfully with the “fringe” festival element of Cucalorus.
“It also fits with our mission to engage young people with their arts community,” Morehouse tells. “Cucalorus [is] an ever-growing embodiment of Wilmington’s arts community and spirit. The play is still in development in many ways as I hope to continue editing and find new diaries. I also hope to possibly send it to other festivals, so sending it to a local festival is a great tryout.”
Derived from the Bible verse, Mouths of Babes can be interpreted as wisdom or truth from young people. Morehouse says it’s important to hear the young voices spoken in society but more importantly really listen to their messages. He wants MoB to engage the world and add to it in all forms. “Lately, I’ve taken to calling ourselves ‘mob,’” he admits. “I just sort of like how it sounds, and it gives a sort of unruly feeling.”
More over, Morehouse is onto something new, as teen and youth theatre isn’t as prominent on a national scale. Though, locally, Wilmington is very much ahead of the curve with Thalian Association Children’s Theatre and Second Star, geared town teens and young adults.
“Often theatre for teens and young adults are done as an afterthought, or in support of the main season or even as a point on a checklist of things a company has to do to attract donors,” Morehouse expands. “I was interested in creating a company where working and engaging with teens and young adults was ‘the thing.’ I wanted something actively sought to create age-appropriate roles for teen actors. You’re only a teen once, so playing a teenager at that age is a priceless experience.”
In five years, Morehouse hopes for MoB to be an incubator of sorts, where young adults are trying their hand at new works—writing, directing, acting, set-designing, the whole shebang. He foresees a “summer festival” format to allow for more outreach work within the school year. “I would love to see our company gather every summer to create new works (documentary plays, devised plays, plays adapted from novels and classic stories, and whatever else we think of), and then share these plays with the community,” he tells.
“I think we’re committed to doing group-created work and more experimental fare,” Dr. Grimes adds. “We’re giving young people leadership artistic positions. For instance, our next piece is called ‘Out Carolina,’ and it will dramatize the coming-out (or disclosing) stories of local folks identifying as LGBTQI. We have our young artists out collecting stories right now and Mickey Johnson, a recent grad of UNCW theatre, will direct and lead the group in devising the piece. She is also going to teach the group about movement and gender.”
First up will be “The Diary Play,” with a special showing for Ashley High School and Virgo Middle School students. Yet, the public viewing will be at North Front Theatre on Nov. 9 at 5 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.