Combining and fusing worlds isn’t just the modus operandi of modern working mothers everywhere; it’s the subject of “BLEED,” the residency Alicia Hall Moran and her husband, jazz pianist Jason Moran held for five days at The Whitney Museum in May. The Broadway singer/actress and mother to four-year-old twins Jonas and Malcolm spoke to mater mea about how she juggles her two roles of a lifetime.
Little-known fact: being a mother and being a hit Broadway performer have a lot in common.
“You have to keep it together,” says Alicia Hall Moran, a classically trained mezzo-soprano currently on Broadway as star Audra McDonald’s understudy in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” (Editor’s Note: The play won the 2012 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical,” and Hall Moran went on to star as Bess in the show’s National Tour 2013-2014.)
“But fortunately, because I have twin boys, I have a Master’s degree in keeping it together.”
“For their [Whitney] Biennial residency, Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran [presented] five days of live music, exploring the power of performance to cross barriers and challenge assumptions, as their title, BLEED, suggests.” —from the Whitney Museum of Art website
That degree comes in handy as Alicia Hall Moran, 38, maneuvers through her packed days and nights. Her four-year-old twins, Jonas and Malcolm, attend a Montessori school in the afternoon so she can spend time with them in the morning; in the evening she’s on stage, either playing Eva, an ensemble cast character she helped name and create, or as the titular role of Bess.
“Being in a show is like being in a prism,” Hall Moran says. “Being Bess is like being on a different frequency. You really see the show from a completely different angle. It’s like going down the highway at 70 with the window open. It’s incredible.”
HALL MORAN’S SONS, MALCOLM (LEFT) AND JONAS (RIGHT).
It’s a feeling akin to motherhood, some might say. But Alicia Hall Moran says her ability to juggle singing and acting with motherhood wasn’t about learning how to balance it all while going full tilt.
“I think what actually happens is that motherhood makes your priorities clearer to you and everyone else,” she says. “Their health and happiness come first.
“Truth is, childcare become my biggest expense once I decided I wanted to continue having an adult, artistic life. Being close to theater, music, art, and poets and writers is why we remain in the city but it’s an expensive choice. Even with my extremely supportive husband and family nearby, most of my own resources still go to childcare. But financial responsibility clarifies things. It makes me more savvy about my worth.”
“We’re not raising kids in a test tube or in a vacuum,” she continues. “We’re parenting within the greater challenges of our families and our community.
One of those challenges that is out of her control? The way society often depicts and treats black men. How does she approach the added difficulty of raising black sons in an age of “Stand Your Ground” and “stop and frisk”?
“I don’t tell them the bad myths of what people might think about them,” Alicia Hall Moran shares. “Not yet. A four-year-old mind can not handle that. I pre-empt the negativity with positive tools. I teach them to recognize the genius of their own culture.”
Those tools include going to museums, researching African masks (a favorite), drumming, and acting; just like mom and dad, the boys are quite the performers.
“I’m very proud of the way they’ve negotiated having two performer parents,” Alicia Hall Moran says. They seem to understand the responsibility in that. They aren’t addicted to applause from us but they are addicted to finding that idea that captures our attention. I just am very proud of who they are and the frequency they’ve chosen to resonate on. It’s very unique. They’re interesting people who I am interested in seeing unfold.”
HOW HAS BEING A MOM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
The part of life that’s changed the most is that I have to manage time in a way that I never had to before. And the stakes on my time are higher. Now if I don’t maintain a certain schedule, people’s health is at risk. It’s such a big responsibility. I think those are the two biggest things: time and responsibility.
“THEY’RE VERY GOOD FRIENDS. THEY GET ALONG WONDERFULLY.”
DID YOU HAVE ANY CONCERNS OR CONVERSATIONS WITH YOUR HUSBAND ABOUT RAISING BLACK SONS?
I can say this: No child will ever choose something that they don’t want. They’re very honest about their wants. So it comes down to persuading them to want for themselves the things that I want for them. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Is it an option for them to not love being black? No! They are black! If they don’t want to eat a certain food, well that’s negotiable. It’s sad how many messages they already receive subtly stating it’s unsafe, and therefore unwise, to be black. My job as a parent is to locate and eliminate the fear and hate in those subtle messages. I say, You are powerful and we have to use power wisely. That’s universal. But are you “dangerous”? That’s the a lie.
I just try to arm them. Someone is going to step up to my child one day with something to say about my child’s version of blackness, or maleness, or whatever, when I’m not around. And my child may one day say something to another child that might alter their point of view in a negative way. I don’t want that, either. But this is what happens and these encounters define us.
Where I feel responsible is in preparing my boys to accept everything out there that tells them they are wonderful and beautiful. They’ll at least have something with which to meet the challenges they’ll face. Wonder and beauty are everywhere!
WHAT’S THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF YOUR JOB?
I’m a singer and see myself as an artist. I feel free to engage with the ideas that interest me from the point of concept. It’s lonely work sometimes, but very rewarding. I’m most gratified by the freedom performing gives me to express my life out loud. People need that. They need to see that it is ok to be yourself and be loud about it sometimes.
My own work at the Whitney Biennial—curating the festival with my husband and performing it—we’ve been doing a lot of pieces together for the last 10 years, and with people we’ve met along the way. That is the best part. Having a constant outlet for using your gift.
I have learned so much from [“Porgy and Bess” director] Diane Paulus and the other actors on stage. Having a place where those lessons can fit into my life as an artist is really important to me and it’s something I cultivate. It’s very difficult to do that. I have no time. But at least the time I’m spending is going into things that I really love and that also love me back.
WHAT ARE YOUR SONS LIKE?
They’re little performers. It’s gratifying. I’m glad that we all speak the same language.
They have the right degrees of self-consciousness to deliver material in an effective way. They’re not entertainers, they’re performers—big difference. Sometimes I want them to be entertaining of people, but they’re just not feeling it. But when they have an idea, they will sit you down and perform you their idea
WHAT INSPIRES THE WAY YOU DRESS YOUR SONS?
Their dad is not really a sweatpants kind of guy. So I think it’s a nice opportunity not to make them sweatpants kids. I like dressing them for their image of themselves, listening closely to who they say they are.
HOW DO YOUR SONS EXPRESS THEIR STYLE?
[Jonas] chose a hard case, deep red adult rolling carry on for his suitcase. It’s very sophisticated, much better than the one I have. Then my other son decided he liked a lady bug suitcase on roller wheels that was designed for children in bright red and yellow.
I allow them to make their own decisions by kind of expanding the vocabulary of what they can buy.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LOVE YOU FEEL FOR YOUR PARTNER AND FOR YOUR CHILDREN?
I have a very wonderful husband. [But the difference is] he’s never thrown up on me. The demands of a mature man should be far less than that of a child. If that’s not true in your life then you need to switch it up!
LEFT: HALL MORAN PERFORMING WITH HER HUSBAND, JAZZ PIANIST JASON MORAN, AT THEIR WHITNEY RESIDENCY “BLEED.”
I’ve learned more about myself [through] getting to love something as much as [I] do [my] children. The range of emotions are so much wider and the depth of my understanding of what love can be is greater because of the boys.