March 8, 2024 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Dance, Theater



by Vanessa Reseland

The new play, UNDERLAND X Alice (read “Underland by Alice”), by choreographer and creator, Kontara Morphis, is a dance and movement-based theater piece. Exploring personal development, cultural imagination, generational trauma, and family ties, UNDERLAND X Alice is a new take on the well-known story of Alice in Wonderland. I spoke with a sparkly and thoughtful Kontara about her newest theater creation.

Photos from UNDERLAND X Alice rehearsals at The New Hazlett Theater

Vanessa Reseland: What can you tell me about the style of your show, UNDERLAND X Alice?

Kontara Morphis: This show [features] modern contemporary dance with theatrical acting through movement. The story is about a young girl who is finding herself. It starts in the 1920s in the Greenwood District during the Tulsa Massacre, which shows the impact of outside world trauma and how that affects you as an individual. Then it breaks down into how your community impacts you. From there it breaks down even further to your family dynamic, and all of these different layers create the person that you are.

VR: Do we explore these layers in the show?

KM: Absolutely, you’ll feel the heaviness, but there’s also joy, laughter, and friendship development. This 13-year old girl is becoming a young woman, and she’s writing her story. Even when you go through all of these things, you still have to find a way to be great. You still have to find a way to enjoy your life.

VR: How did the creative process begin for this show?

KM: I got a vision for it in the middle of teaching, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. I just had this idea; I need to write it down,” so I kind of paused the class and started journaling. The storyline resonated with me, being an African-American woman who is finding myself. I was adopted, and I just found my birth family in 2018. I didn’t know who I was before then. Now, knowing my family [is] helping me to discover who I am. That’s a past trauma that I didn’t realize was affecting me, but it pushed me to where I am now. Some, if not all, of the things that are happening through the show, I’ve either experienced, or I know someone who has, so it’s really real to me.

VR: How do you translate those kinds of realities into something theatrical?

KM: I see what’s going on around me and allow it to play out. This show is all dance and movement. There’s no dialogue between characters, and it really allows you to see what’s happening as opposed to someone telling you what’s happening or what to feel.

VR: Technically, how do you write a show with no words?

KM: I started writing like it was a book. When you think about other ballets that are plays, essentially, they don’t have any words, but there’s a story. For me, I had to create the story and start with that, and then I started to put movement and music and song and imagery with what I was writing.

VR: Is it an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland?

KM: It’s definitely an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Alice transfers into Underland, which is the mental escape. In Underland, everybody is able to just be honest and true and who they want to be. This is Alice‘s first time being in this space and escaping to this world, so she’s finding all this magic, and she’s also realizing that a lot of what’s happening in the real world now makes sense because of Underland. They’re afraid of whatever’s happening in the real world.

VR: Is Underland purely fantastical, or is it based on any real-life inspiration?

KM: Because I am African-American, it definitely speaks to the African-American story and the journey and culture, but I feel that it’s relatable to anybody because we’re dealing with society and what’s going on around us. There’s beauty, but then Underland also has the pain of characters.

VR: What has it been like working on this project with the New Hazlett Theater?

KM: I’ve done shows in the past with my own money, and I did my own projections and my own videos. I taught myself how to mix and edit music, and it was good work, but to have a team of people who support me, some that I just met and [some] that I’ve known for years, come together in solidarity and show me so much love and support has made this process something that I can slow down and enjoy. Even though I get stressed, it’s not the same type of stress. It’s a relieved stress [laughter].

I brought on a director who I’m really excited about, Zachariah Washington. I’m working on this project with one of my very best friends, Rickia Davenport. She’s my assistant choreographer. Ramin Akhavijou is creating all of the music. Scott Andrew is bringing the dialogue into the show through projection and animation. Tucker Topel’s set design [has] a clear vision. My costume person, Claudia Brownlee, is amazing. Broughton Ganaway, with the lighting, from day one has taken the script and run with it. Charles Jamal Lee is going to play The Rabbit, and it’s an actual rabbit head that he can barely see out of. My Mad Hatter is also a skater, Martel Brown. I put my students that I teach in the show. Ashley Ford [Alice] has been my student since she was eight years old, and now she’s in high school. My son is in it a little bit. It’s exciting to be able to bring him on this journey with me. He’s so sweet; it makes me so happy to be able to do this with him. He’s 12.

VR: Is the show appropriate for all ages?

KM: I would say middle school and up. I’ll say this, I work with kids of all ages, and these kids have experienced a lot of things that most adults haven’t experienced. Seeing it play out in this way can bring comfort, and it can bring a reassurance that they aren’t the only ones that go through some of the things that they shouldn’t. Everything is done tastefully; it’s not a show that reveals anything that would traumatize anyone.

VR: What impact do you want this show to have on your audience?

KM: I am hoping that people find themselves within some character or scenario. I want people to reflect on themselves. I want it to really resonate with people and create some sort of change or provoke some sort of self-discovery that pushes them forward. Dance is something that’s healing, not just entertainment.

The character of Alice is a combination of experiences and people, customs and structures of, specifically, the black community. I can talk to any black person in any city, and they will understand certain things in the household that I went through. I just met my birth family, so my sisters…just the fact that we weren’t raised together, but we have the same customs, and we deal with the same issues. I think Alice embodies what every black 13-year-old kid goes through. Even though Alice’s character starts in the 1920s, over 100 years later, we’re still kind of that same person, so Alice is a dope character.

This show will have a sequel to it. So, when you see the cliffhanger, you’ll be like, “Dang-“

VR: This play ends on a cliffhanger??

KM: It ends on a cliffhanger. A nice one though! You will definitely be like, “I want to see what’s next.”

UNDERLAND X Alice runs at the New Hazlett Theater: March 21 at 8pm, March 22 at 8pm.

Tickets can be found at:

Vanessa Reseland (they/them) is an actor/singer/songwriter who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in the North Hills, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working in musical theatre, film, and television before returning to Pittsburgh to dive into the local arts scene as well. They played the Witch in Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods in London and on the US National Tour, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Visiting Production and the LA Critic’s Circle Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Vanessa is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and co-created and co-directed the webseries, Remarkable Women, with Alexandra Lenihan. They have performed their original glam rock/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012


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