teacher inspired generations of Broadway, Hollywood actors – Detroit Free Press

Before curtain, as celebrities walked the red carpet outside the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway in New York, the crowd parted for a woman in a wheelchair who carried bouquets of flowers.
Though not involved with the production, the night was dedicated to her.
It was a “Detroit takeover,” staged Feb. 4 on Broadway to celebrate, among other things, the critically acclaimed production “Skeleton Crew,” written by Detroiter Dominique Morisseau and starring Detroiter Chanté Adams.
An energetic crowd of Motor City natives gathered to pay tribute to Detroit’s influence on theater in an electric evening of uplifting performances and hometown pride, and it wouldn’t have happened without the woman in the wheelchair, peaking out from behind her pile of flowers.
Related: Detroiters take over a Broadway theater, celebrating the Motor City in New York
Marilyn McCormick, a retired Cass Technical High School theater educator, was responsible for launching the careers of both Morisseau and Adams, as well as countless other students who’ve gone on to thriving careers in the entertainment industry.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” said Adams.
It’s a sentiment echoed by scores of her McCormick’s former pupils, who affectionately refer to her as “MC.”
Angela Lewis, currently in the middle of her fifth season as Aunt Louie on FX’s “Snowfall,” credits McCormick with providing her the foundation to earn quality work as an actress.
“MC always kept it real with us, you know?” Lewis said. “She really was essential in my understanding that I have to dig deeper, I have to be serious about this craft that I’m honing, and to be a vessel for the truth that is wanting to come out. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our peers, and we owe it to our audiences to really bring the funk each time.
“She saw me in a whole new way, and that is so important. To be validated in such a way as a young adult … I was an underdog, but I got to shine my light (with her), and for me that was huge. That was really the beginning to everything for me.”
McCormick, of Southfield, was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Detroit with her family as a teenager, but several years of her childhood were spent bedridden due to an injury. A birth defect led to hip problems; her bones weren’t all growing at the same rate, leading to a slipped disc at age eight. 
“I did not walk from the time I was eight until I was 14 years old,” McCormick said. “A slipped disc in my hip. For two years, I lied in the hospital in a body cast. I had two surgeries. It’s a very common procedure now, but back then, it wasn’t. I was in a wheelchair for a couple of years, then I had all these braces on my legs for a couple of years.”
Despite it all, she said she had a normal childhood in which her parents, siblings and friends kept her engaged and treated her as though nothing had changed.
“It didn’t stop me from being who I am,” she said. “We must understand that everything we need is already inside us.”
In fact, McCormick’s extended convalescence stoked a new fire in her: the desire to be an actress and live out her fantasies before an audience. 
“When you’re bedridden,” she said,” all you have is your imagination and TV or books.”
McCormick graduated from Cass Tech and attended Ohio’s Bowling Green State University before obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in educational administration from Wayne State University. While at Bowling Green, she visited home one weekend to do laundry and encountered her brother’s singing group rehearsing in the basement. One of her brother’s friends caught her eye.
“I said, ‘This guy is so fine,’” she recalled, giggling. “We became friends.”
She and Michael McCormick soon married. In 1977, she returned to Cass Tech, seeking a part-time substitute teaching position, but was offered a full-time job.  
“It really was accidental,” she said with a laugh.
She spent her first two years at Cass Tech teaching English, but was aware from the start that a teacher in the performing arts department was nearing retirement. She soon stepped into the role vacated by the outgoing teacher, and by 1980 was leading drama students in lessons and regular stage productions. She knew she’d found her calling, and remained at Cass Tech for nearly 40 years, with highlights such as a 2006 production of “Julius Caesar” staged with help from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and making Cass one of the first schools in the country to stage student productions of modern hits such as “The Color Purple” and “In the Heights.”
Bonnie Nielsen, who taught speech, stagecraft and radio/television at Cass Tech, worked alongside McCormick many of those years, with her stagecraft team leading the builds for production sets.
“In the suburbs,” said Nielsen, “(teachers) get paid extra to do plays. In Detroit, they don’t. There’s no extra money; it’s just your regular paycheck. But countless hours spent (on productions), taking kids home after rehearsals, all kinds of things … say so much about Marilyn’s commitment to all this. I think that’s why we were so devoted to her — respect for her passion. For the selflessness.
“She was a mentor, a mother figure to so many. She’s a very spiritual kind of person, and a listener. Her kids, even after she retired, would call and talk about jobs, ask what she thought. I retired in 2004, but my husband and I came back and built every set for every play for the next 12 years until Marilyn retired in 2016. It was really very special to work with her.”
Cass Tech grad Malik Reed called working with McCormick “a spiritual reset.” The 25-year-old actor, who had a recurring role last year on “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” spoke with the Free Press shortly after filming his first national commercial, for Buffalo Wild Wings.
“She’s bigger than life,” Reed said. “She would lead us through meditative practices and exercises to get us centered and ready to work. Anything she does with us, she’s always sending us back to ourselves, reminding us that we have the answers to everything we are seeking. We are capable. We are enough. She’s a phenomenal woman.”
Former student Harron Atkins recalled, “The real goal was to get us ready to get into these really competitive (colleges). As far as I know, she was the only person in Detroit doing that kind of work, and still is.
“She was the first person who sat me down and said, ‘You know, you can actually do this. This doesn’t have to be just a dream. I need you to know that you — this Black boy from Detroit — absolutely have a place in the industry.’”
She also took extra steps to connect current students with past pupils who found success.
“The amazing thing about MC,” Atkins said, “is that she would bring all of these people back to (Cass Tech) who were currently in the big theater schools like SUNY Purchase, Rutgers University, Carnegie Mellon, and they’d come talk to us so we could actually see, ‘This isn’t a dream. There are people who look like me, they’re from where I’m from, and they’re doing it.’
“And not only that. She would take us to New York to see Broadway plays that people from Cass were in. We’d go to the movies and see people who also went to Cass, actually up there on the big screen. She really connected the dots and said, ‘This is as viable as being a doctor, an engineer. Art, theater, writing, they’re just as viable.”
Atkins, 29, was featured in the award-winning video game “Red Dead Redemption 2” and has carved out a niche writing for children’s television. After working on “Caillou,” “Sesame Street” and “Sesame” spinoff “Mecha Builders,” he now works as a writer for Cartoon Network’s “Craig of the Creek.”
“I just moved to L.A. three weeks ago,” he said. “So now I’m on the West Coast, writing TV, which I really love. And it all goes back to MC saying, ‘Yeah, this is something you absolutely should be pursuing.’”
In 2016, as McCormick concluded her 39-year career at Cass, she was selected from over 1,000 nominated teachers to be honored with the Excellence in Theatre Education Award from the Tony Awards in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. She was flown to New York to accept her award on the live telecast.
“(My students) have allowed me … to awaken every day to do exactly what it is I love to do, to do the thing I think I was born to do,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Related: Cass Tech teacher  honored on Tony Awards
“It was so unreal, like the other side of the rainbow,” McCormick remembered. “(Broadway actress) Audra McDonald kept hugging me and saying, ‘I love you, I love you.’ I think students have a different relationship with acting teachers than they do with academic teachers. Audra kept saying, ‘A theater teacher changed my life.’ (Hamilton playwright) Lin-Manuel Miranda was talking with me and somebody came up to take his picture. He said, ‘Excuse me, I’m talking to this teacher. Can you wait?’ I was important enough.”
McCormick, who underwent knee replacement surgery last fall, continues to work with students post-retirement, leading acting lessons in her apartment and directing shows for Mosaic Youth Theatre. Last summer, she directed an outdoor staging of Harron Atkins’ “The Three Talents.” In her spare time, she reads plays, watches movies, and spends time with family; she and her late husband have a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.
And she still receives calls almost daily from former students seeking college or career guidance.
Former student Nicco Annan went on to perform on Broadway, act alongside Angela Lewis on “Snowfall” and serve as choreographer in residence at Yale School of Drama. In 2020, The Hollywood Reporter named him one of the year’s best television performers for his work on Starz series “P-Valley.”
“It gives you a different level of confidence and security to work in an industry where you are separated by less than three degrees from someone from your hometown,” Annan said. “When I booked my recurring role on ‘Shameless’ on Showtime, it was comforting to know that Dominique Morisseau was one of my writers on that show. When I booked my recurring role on ‘Snowfall,’ it was so dope to know that Angela Lewis was also a Cass Tech MC kid.
“When I was choreographing ‘A Year With Frog and Toad’ at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, it was great to know that I was working with Terence Archie, who played Apollo Creed in Broadway’s ‘Rocky’ musical and Coalhouse Walker in ‘Ragtime’ — one of my friends who’s also one of MC’s kids. Professionally, the things she planted in our lives as children truly have manifested harvest as an adult. That, for me, is really important, and so special and unique.”
Cass Tech alum Chanté Adams, who starred in Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” on Broadway, also drew raving reviews for her work opposite Michael B. Jordan in the Denzel Washington-directed “A Journal for Jordan,” and it was announced last week that she will receive a 2022 ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood honor. Later this year, she’ll be featured in Amazon’s series re-imagining of baseball comedy “A League of Their Own.” Ironically, Adams never intended to become an actress.
“I had never thought of acting,” Adams said. “I went to Cass to join the cheer team. The first day of my freshman year, a friend of mine was going to audition for a play, and she was the only friend I knew in the class, so I said, ‘I’ll just wait outside.’ MC was like, ‘If you’re going to wait, you need to audition.’ I auditioned and ended up getting into the play, and from then on, I was one of MC’s kids. That’s my origin story.”
Working with McCormick was life-changing, she said.
“To put it simply, she changed the course of what I thought my life would be,” she said. “She showed me there was a whole other life possible, by letting us visit new places. For a lot of my classmates that traveled with us, it was their first time leaving the state. She showed us that there’s so much more outside of the city we were used to.
“She sent me on this path — not just falling in love with acting at Cass, but she sent me to the summer program that got me accepted into my college, then trickled down to me getting my first job. Everything was in alignment, but she was the first piece. I owe my entire career to her.”
Morisseau agreed, and spoke of McCormick’s strong encouragement.
“She was the first teacher I ever had who made me realize I could actually go to college for theater,” said Morisseau. “I thought I’d have to go to college for being, like, a child psychologist or something and just act in my spare time. I didn’t know that acting and theater could be studied as a legitimate major in college. She’s the one who made us aware of that, and also helped us to find auditions and prepare for them, and took us on trips and to audition for theater schools. I wouldn’t have gone to the University of Michigan if not for her.”
Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, was Tony-nominated in 2019 for her script “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” — the first nomination of its kind for a Black female playwright. Her “Skeleton Crew” production enjoyed a critically hailed limited run before closing in late February, and she spoke to the Free Press by phone the night before her new Broadway show, “Confederates,” began preview performances.
Morisseau and Adams originally met long before “Skeleton Crew,” when Morisseau returned to Cass Tech as a successful playwright to speak with McCormick’s students. Adams helped McCormick get to New York for the Feb. 4 Detroit on Broadway celebration, meeting her for check-in at her hotel to spend time with her.
“I can’t imagine what that was like for her,” Adams said, “to sit in that Broadway house and see a play written by her students and also starring one of her students. When the cast circled up before going onstage, I told them there was a very special person out in the audience and I wanted to give a shout out to all the educators, because I wouldn’t be in my position if I didn’t have her. We dedicated the show to her that night.”
Being included in the evening’s success was yet another full circle moment for McCormick.
“It was overwhelming,” she said, “to be there and see the things we talked about come to fruition. You know, it’s like living inside of a miracle. I believe in them, but to live inside of it, to breathe and take it all in … it’s unreal. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to act, to be on TV or the stage or something. So for me to be a teacher and love it, and not be able to imagine myself doing something else—and then to see those things which matter to me matter for someone else—it’s just amazing.”
Through it all, McCormick remains humble and unassuming, and deflects praise back to her students.
“I would not be who I am if it were not for the children and their parents and the administrators who have always been supportive of my dream,” she said.
And that dream?
“To soar.”
Contact Free Press arts and culture reporter Duante Beddingfield at dbeddingfield@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @DBFreePress.  


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