Houston's Up and Coming Actors 2019: Razzle, Dazzle and a Whole Lot More

Brandon Morgan is one of a smart group of young actors appearing on Houston's stages.
Brandon Morgan is one of a smart group of young actors appearing on Houston's stages. Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright

This past August, when Brandon Morgan strode up on stage to accept his Houston Theater Award for the Best Everywhere We Looked Player, he pointed to his friend, Joseph “Joe P” Palmore (who had just won the Best Actor Award) and said the following:

“See man, they only liked one of your roles, but they liked ALL my roles. My plan is to get this award every year!”

It’s not often a person sums himself up in just one line, but when it comes to Morgan, this tells you boatloads. He’s sassy. He’s uber-competitive. He's ambitious as hell. And directors, from the Alley Theatre to Rec Room Arts, believe in his unique, charismatic talent, trusting numerous ensemble and leading roles to his care. Roles that landed him the award he now says he covets.

But this explosive talent that seems to have burst onto Houston stages out of nowhere isn’t just a pleasure for us to enjoy, it’s the basis for a career that Morgan didn’t plan on or even really consider. Until someone noticed him and changed his life.

Morgan is just one of the up and coming actors who’ve caught our eye recently on stages all over Houston. These men and women are all exciting performers whose talent deserves your attention and we’re thrilled to be able to shine a spotlight on them.

click to enlarge Brandon Morgan and his mother have a well-deserved mutual admiration society. - PHOTO BY DAVID "ODIWAMS" WRIGHT
Brandon Morgan and his mother have a well-deserved mutual admiration society.
Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright
Brandon Morgan

A Northside native, Morgan wasn’t really all that into theater in high school. But a monologue he delivered in his final year caught the attention of a Prairie View A&M professor who suggested that Morgan come to the university and learn to act.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” admits Morgan. “I was actually going to graduate high school and get a job. But I eventually said yes and this changed the path of my life forever. It changed everything. Theater saved my life.”

What makes Morgan so dynamic to watch is his almost ineffable blend of exuberance, coolness and sly vulnerability on stage. We first noticed him in 2017 when he co-starred in the Stages Repertory Theatre production of My Mañana Comes, a show he credits with putting him on the radar in Houston. “Simply put, I was exposed to more people after that show and my services became more requested at that point,” says Morgan.

Requests maybe have gone up, but Morgan isn’t the kind of actor to sit back and passively enjoy his growing success. Instead, he hungrily throws himself into consideration for as many opportunities as possible, as often as possible. “I’m an audition hog,” says Morgan. “I feel like if I ever have a chance to get in front of a director, nine times out of ten, I would, and should, be able to be cast. And I don’t care if I’m in ten shows, I’ll audition for 10 more.”

This kind of drive and belief in himself has deep family roots. Morgan’s mother has worked as a Senior Customer Service Manager at Fed Ex for the last 32 years and his grandmother was the first black woman to work at Champions Golf Club, where she remained for 53 years. “I look at the pedigree of these women who worked so hard, diligently and consistently at their singular job and then my mother looks at me like well, what are you going to do for 30 years, and I say, it’s going to be theater. This is my 30 or 50 years into the game.”

Morgan may be just a couple years into that plan, but last year alone, he wowed us in the Alley Theater’s production of Skeleton Crew, Shabach Production’s Fly on the Wall and Queensbury Theater’s, Breaking Out of Sunset Place. But it was his intensely physical starring role as boxer Jack Johnson in, The Royale, at Rec Room Arts, that showed us the true power of his talent.

“There’s something highly unique about Brandon Morgan,” says Brandon Weinbrenner, who directed The Royale and cast Brandon in the part. “He possesses an entirely authentic confidence that makes him not only immensely powerful onstage but also immensely mesmerizing. We want to know what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling, what he’s going to do next.”

It's this “next” that we’re the edge of our seat interested in, for Morgan and the rest of the supremely talented men and women you’re about to meet on this year’s Ones to Watch List. All these actors have recently caught our eye, impressed us repeatedly and left us wanting more. They are undoubtedly some of our rising theater stars in Houston. We can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon for each and everyone and we encourage you to go see for yourself what these emerging talents have to offer.

Brandon Morgan will appear next in Pass Over at Rec Room Arts, February 8 – 29, 2020.

click to enlarge Briana J. Resa took a leap of faith and got back into theater. - PHOTO BY DAVID "ODIWAMS" WRIGHT
Briana J. Resa took a leap of faith and got back into theater.
Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright
Briana J. Resa

The best thing that ever happened to Briana J. Resa’s career in theater was that she was fired two years ago. Not from an acting gig (even though she had trained as a performer college) but from the successful corporate life she’d built for herself, working as a hospital event coordinator.

It was a now or never moment for her, go back and try again to do what she really wanted to do, which was act, or give it up forever. Luckily for us, she chose her true passion. But it wasn't a choice without some fear built-in.

“I feel like where I am now is my second attempt at theater in this city,” says Resa. “After school, I came down to Houston, pursued a theater career and had an internship at TUTS and Stages. I was doing well, but something was missing for me. I think it was age and confidence, the ability to fully believe in yourself and go for it 100 percent. I didn’t have that yet at 23 years old.”

Auditions and finances both fraught with insecurity led Resa to take a job in education as a teaching artist at Theatre Under the Stars. A job she enjoyed, but one that didn’t quite fulfill her theater dreams. Her next job as Community Engagement Coordinator at the Alley Theatre gave her the financial cushion she needed, but she found that she was pulling even further away from performing.

By the time she worked for the hospital, Resa’s bank account was happy, but she was not. “I was so stressed out from work and I had no time for theater,” says Resa. “Every time I’d go to a show there was something in me that longed to be the people out there.”

So, she took a leap of faith. As luck and her talent would have it, she landed a role immediately in the 2017 production of Native Gardens at Main Street Theater, giving us a first look at her mature and alluring presence on stage.

“Stepping back in after not being in it for years was terrifying,” says Briana. “I had tons of support to go after what I wanted, the only thing in my way was me.”

Since then Briana has concerned herself with full time hustling. Reminding casting directors and companies that she’s back and is an option for them to consider. It’s a hustle that’s paid off handsomely. She’s since appeared in The Moors at Mildred’s Umbrella, A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre and showed her versatility playing everything from slithering seductress to nagging mom in Alma en Venta at Stages Repertory Theatre.

Briana chokes up as she talks about her success, “I wanted it for so long and I deprived myself because I was so afraid of it. I still have moments of doubt of course, but now I know I’m doing the right thing. Now I can take being told no. It never gets easier, but I’ve gotten older and wiser and more confident that what I bring is special.”

Nothing illustrates Briana’s personal and professional evolution more than how she ended up gifting us with an epically hilarious tantrum-throwing performance as Infanta Juana in Mildred’s Umbrella’s production of The Hunchback of Seville. A role that garnered her a 2019 Houston Theater Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

“I wasn’t called in for Juana, I was called for a different role,” says Resa. “But I read the play and thought, I can do this. So, I went and asked the artistic director if I could read. I figured I was the underdog but, the worst they could say was no.”

“Briana is a person who knows herself,” says Mildred’s Umbrella Artistic Director Jennifer Decker. “She knew in her heart that we'd never think of her for that role initially, but she also knew exactly how she would play it. She worked hard and thoughtfully on it and she knocked it out of the park! I can't even imagine anyone in that role besides her now that she's done it.”

Resa may have taken a circuitous route to the stage, but for her, it seems that time plus desire was the magic equation.

Briana J. Resa will appear next in:
A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre – November 15 through December 29, 2019
Between Riverside and Crazy at 4th Wall Theatre Co. - March 13-April 4, 2020
Empanada Loca at Obsidian Theater – October 4 -26, 2019

click to enlarge Bravery, hard work and talent have paid off for Jayden Key. - PHOTO BY DAVID "ODIWAMS" WRIGHT
Bravery, hard work and talent have paid off for Jayden Key.
Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright
Jayden Key

Nothing makes you feel more ancient than listening to a just turned 21-year-old harken back to the days when he was 17. But while Jayden Key on paper is just a pup, his prowess on Houston stages proves that age need not be a determining factor when it comes to performers we simply can’t take our eyes off of.

So, we happily listen to the story of him at 17, after all, it changed his life and brought his talent to us.

Key was admittedly a terrible student, barely passing his high school courses. But there was one class he loved: theater. Performing in every show available at school, Key decided post-graduation to try out for the Alliance Auditions, the actor cattle-call for Houston area theaters.

But there was a problem, he was just 17. “I knew you were supposed to be 18 to go,” says Key who had already sent them an email from a fake account asking anonymously if he could audition. “So, I went to the audition with my mom and I was like, y’know what, I’m just going to go. And If they decline me, whatever. I might as well just try. Besides, my birthday’s in August, so by the time anyone would want to cast me I’d be 18 anyway, so that was my thought process.”

Ballsy move for a young man, but a smart one it turns out. Key got immediately booked by a children’s theater, where he was lucky enough to be mentored and shown the ropes by the other performers. They told him about what auditions to go to, what theaters to pay attention to. How to navigate life as a professional actor.

The parts and the companies got bigger. Key appeared in Church at Horse Head Theatre Co., Mr. Burns at Obsidian Theatre, and ended up connecting with Catastrophic Theatre, a company that would go on to provide him with the showcase roles that introduced his fearless, intense and fascinating oddness to Houston audiences.

“I wasn’t even supposed to go to the Catastrophic season call,” says Key. “But I heard about it last minute on vacation with my father as we were driving to New Orleans and I was like, I don’t know, but it feels like I’m supposed to do this thing, and so my dad was nice enough to let us leave six hours early so I could make it.”
Eight months later, Key was cast in Catastrophic’s production of Leap and the Net Will Appear.

“When I first laid eyes on Jayden Key at a general audition for The Catastrophic Theatre. I wrote "BRAVE" across his headshot, says Catastrophic Artistic Director Tamarie Cooper. “He is an incredibly hard worker and always wants to be challenged. Yet there's something else about him-a glimmer in his eye, something a little off, a little weird and strange, that sets him apart from the average Joe. Does he have a secret? Did he just sneak a cookie from the cookie jar? These are qualities that many of our Catastrophic artists possess. He is a lovely and welcome addition to our family.”

But it was his fearlessly intense and physically draining portrayal of Wesley in Catastrophic’s Curse of the Starving Class, that catapulted Key into the spotlight, earning him rave reviews all around and landing him the 2019 Houston Theater Award for Best Supporting Actor.

“It’s cliché to say, but Jayden just has the “IT” factor whatever the hell that is,” says Jeff Miller, director of Curse of the Starving Class. “Nobody knows what ‘IT’ is, but you know you like watching IT. On top of that Jayden doubles down with a dose of hard work and a heaping helping of bravery. Hell of a poker player too.”

That all of this talent and success comes without any formal training isn’t lost on Jayden. “I constantly say that I feel like the luckiest person in Houston because right out of high school I started doing shows. That’s not normal, I know,” says Jayden who is considering applying to conservatory programs to further his theatrical education. “I’ve been really hungry to work for the last three years in Houston and I’m now realizing that there’s so much more to learn, so I'm keeping that option open.”

For now, though, the conservatory will have to wait. Key is already in rehearsal for his next show. “Because I’m not in school, for now, my school is these plays, so I learn as much as I can. Every show is terrifying, every show is hard. There is so much you have to figure out. But that’s why I love it.”

Jayden Key will next appear in Tragedy, a Tragedy at The Catastrophic Theatre, September 27-October 20

click to enlarge With a great sense of comedic timing, Mai Le has seen her work soar in the last two seasons. - PHOTO BY DAVID "ODIWAMS" WRIGHT
With a great sense of comedic timing, Mai Le has seen her work soar in the last two seasons.
Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright

Mai Le

The acting bug hit Mai Le hard when she was 13 and she performed a monologue in front of her classmates. “I had a lot of bullies in school,” says Le. “But at the end of my audition, everyone stood up and clapped for me. I was really surprised that no matter how they felt about me, everyone was moved by a story, by a narrative. It opened my eyes to the power of storytelling.”

Le went on to get a degree as a theater educator in 2015, but a combination of not feeling ready to be any actor's mentor and her desire to be on the stage, led her to start auditioning for Houston shows. Still living in Dallas at the time, Le made the trip in to read for parts, striking out twice, but proving that sometimes clichés are true, when her third audition for Landing Theatre's Company's production of All In the Timing, was the charm.

Fitting name for her first show, as apparently Le’s timing was excellent, as she’s been booking shows almost continually since then.

It was last season however that her work really stood out, turning in two excellent performances in two of the season’s outstanding shows. First, there was her terrifically physical and comedic ensemble role in the transgressive expedition play, Men on Boats at Main Street Theater, a Houston Theater Award winner for Best Play in 2018. A role that she didn’t exactly nail in the audition.

“The construct of Men on Boats, it isn’t women trying to be men, it’s women acting in these roles as men. But apparently I didn’t get the memo,” says Le. “I walked into the audition with big bushy eyebrows, no make-up, a giant over-sized shirt, shorts, sneakers. And they weren’t even my clothes, they were my boyfriend’s clothes! I just sank back and hoped they ignored the outfit and tried to be as professional about it as I could.”

Embarrassment soon gave way to excitement when, despite the appearance gaffe, Le got the part, which she did not take lightly. “It was a ten-person female show and I’d never seen that much female power come together,” says Le. “It felt like an incredible honor to be part of that.”

“It was a pleasure to work with Mai on Men On Boats,” says the show’s director, Philip Hays. “She works hard and is a great collaborator, ready and willing to tackle challenging material. She is thoughtful and creative and, of course, her comic timing is impeccable.”

But when it comes to comedic timing, we hadn't seen half of what Le was capable of until she appeared in the satirical and absurd melodrama, Two Mile Hollow at Rogue Productions. Clad in an enormous flowing blond wig that seemed about to overtake her, she ate up scene after scene, wailing, complaining, longing and making the emotionally sobby victim stance one of the funniest things we’d seen all season. The whole thing was so expertly over the top, she was awarded the 2019 Houston Theater Award for Best Trouper.

Even among all the fun, Le again felt the gravity of the experience. “Two Mile Hollow called for every role to be played by an actor of color in the show, and this was another experience that struck me as being incredibly special”, says Le. “The previous show, I was with a bunch of women, this time I was with a group of actors of color.”

“Mai had quite feasibly the hardest (and most fun) role in Two Mile Hollow – the role I was most nervous to cast,” says director Lisa Villegas. “After she walked in and nailed her audition, I breathed a little easier. She was not only perfect for this show, she has exactly what you want in an actor: curious, gutsy, hardworking, a joy to collaborate with. She had us in stitches even into tech – granted, she was working with exquisite material, but even so, this was well beyond the time that jokes lose their shimmer. She is just so game, so willing to play, to experiment, fail, succeed, discover.”

Both the importance of the work she’s doing as well as the talent she exudes doing it is something Le is happy to share with her parents, Vietnamese refugees who came to America in the war. Even if it took a while for them to come around to Le's career choice. "They don't quite understand how playing make-believe can get me paid," says Le. "But they enjoy seeing videos of my work that I send them and they like seeing me happy. We came here so our children could be happy, they say, and if this is what makes you happy then we support you.”

Mai Le will next appear in:
The Hard Problem at Main Street Theater, Continuing through October 6, 2019
Sensitive Guys at Stages Repertory Theatre, March 20 – April 5, 2020

click to enlarge Callina Anderson has shown she can hold her own with some of the city's best actors. - PHOTO BY DAVID "ODIWAMS" WRIGHT
Callina Anderson has shown she can hold her own with some of the city's best actors.
Photo by David "Odiwams" Wright

Callina Anderson

Callina Anderson owes her entire acting career to Patrick Swayze, $30,000 and turning 30.

It’s tempting to just leave it there and let you all imagine what that means, but of course, we're here to fill you in.
Callina and her family went to the movies every weekend, it’s where she fell for the magic of storytelling. But it wasn’t until she saw To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, that she knew acting was going to be her life.

“I adored Patrick Swayze and how honest his performance was and I said, I want to do that. I want to affect people that way,” says Anderson. But crippling shyness kept her from ever auditioning for anything in high school. “So, I figured if I threw down $30K for taking acting in college, I would have no choice but to get up on the stage, so I majored in theater University of Houston.”

And it worked, kind of. In college Anderson found her footing and the confidence that she does, in fact, belong on stage. But post-grad, she was still too terrified to go to auditions. It was so bad in fact, that she would get callbacks and decline to go.

Thankfully for her and for Houston audiences, that all changed when she turned 30. “I felt like I was getting too old to play around with this anymore, too old to be afraid,” says Anderson. “I hit 30 and thought, this is it, if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to. I also looked back on nine years of terror, and I was really ashamed. Ashamed of telling my parents, no I don’t have anything this year – it was a lie – I just wasn’t doing anything about it.”

It was quickly after this revelation that she got her first role in Ensemble Theatre’s production of Planto y Collards. Thrilled as she was, she was also somewhat shocked. Not because she landed the role, but because of the company itself.

“I was shocked because it was a black theater that hired me for a black play,” says Anderson who is half African American and half Asian and says she was constantly bullied in high school for not being “black enough” and sounding too white. “Was I going to live up to the history of this theater?” She said she felt intimidated doing an African American piece that was so outside of her own experience.

Her fears were soon put to rest. “I felt so welcomed and it was such a healing process for me and my identity, knowing that I belonged regardless of my background,” says Anderson.

“I have great respect and value for Callina as an artist,” says The Ensemble Theatre Artistic Director, Eileen J. Morris. “She always seeks to capture the growth and depth of each character she plays and her synergy of life is displayed in her artistry. She is an all-out fun actress to be around and always brings with her an infectious passion for creating.”

Others saw that talent and passion as well. Anderson's roles came in succession and suddenly it seemed like we saw her everywhere. She showed grace in playing a sci-fi dog/lizard in Gambrels of the Sky at Landing Theatre, she got her girl power groove on in Dollface at Mildred's Umbrella and she returned confidently to Ensemble to play in no less than August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

But it was The Revolutionists at Main Street, the four-character feminist power comedy set during the French Revolution, that was the first show to really put her on the map. Playing a fierce Caribbean freedom fighter, Anderson expertly grounded the production with heart and soul, showing she can hold her own with some of the city’s best actresses.

“Callina pulls a power of emotion from depths you think must reach to the core of the earth,” says The Revolutionists director Andrew Ruthven. “The result captures the audience in a way that you can’t help but feel the impact of that moment.”

But none of these solid performances prepared us for what she accomplished in last year’s Houston Equity production of The Effect. Playing a young woman in a drug experiment, obsessed with her co-experimentee, Anderson took center stage and ripped it up with angst, anger, lust and an enormously brave performance that showcased a depth of talent. It showed that she is indeed ready and willing to fully unleash the talent she pent up for so many years.

Patrick Swayze, rest his soul, would be proud.

Callina Anderson will next appear in:
The Hard Problem at Main Street Theater, Continuing through October 6, 2019
Ladies’ Night at Mildred’s Umbrella, January 9-18, 2020
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman