Marissa Harrington is a walking Venn diagram. One circle represents family, one represents home ownership, and one represents theater. In the overlapping area at the heart is this wife and mother, real estate agent, and co-founder of Kalamazoo’s Face Off Theatre Company who is animated and passionate about all three areas of her life.
Harrington was born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1983. Her father, Robert Davis, was in the Army; her mother, Rowena Snead, was in the Navy. Harrington calls herself “a military brat.” She grew up under Snead’s care in South-Central Los Angeles, and it was there that Harrington’s multifaceted life began.
“I started theater when I was 12 years old,” explains Harrington. “Theatre is how I found my voice and my confidence. I struggled a lot with low self-esteem, and my mom was, like, ‘OK, we need to put this girl in an environment that will help her develop and grow.’ At our church there was a lady and her mom who ran a theater school, Faith Acting Studios, in their home. It was a diverse school, but all the instructors were professionally working Black actors.
“My mom’s thought wasn’t that I would be an actor. She just decided, ‘I want my kid to at least be introduced to this.’ And I wasn’t trying to be on stage. But I got there, and I was like, ‘Oh, oh, I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ It was serendipitous. It literally changed my life.
It was also while Harrington was growing up in South-Central L.A. that the seeds of her other future career were planted. “Mom struggled financially, and we experienced extreme housing insecurity due to evictions,” Harrington says, “so I’ve always been passionate about educating people, especially folks of color, on what it means to own a home.”
In 2009, at age 24, Harrington moved from L.A. to Chicago to be closer to her father. Not able to find employment, she accepted an invitation from her mother, who was in Kalamazoo helping Harrington’s grandmother care for a sick relative. “Mom had a friend in her church who owned Smoothie King on Drake Road. She told my mom, ‘I’ll hire Marissa.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I got paid $7.25 an hour, but it was a job.”
At the same time, Harrington questioned her decision to leave the Windy City. “I’m a performer, you know, so I’m going, like, ‘Oh, Chicago. Yeah, that’s where I should be.’ I didn’t know anything about Kalamazoo. I actually pictured cornfields and an abyss, so obviously I was pleasantly surprised by the arts community when I moved here.”
Inspired by her past
Harrington quickly saw opportunity, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater from Western Michigan University in 2013, and sought a career that would allow her the flexibility to pursue her passion to perform.
Recalling the housing situation of her youth, Harrington chose real estate. In 2015, she became an assistant with Keller Williams Realty. Within a year, she acquired her real estate license and changed employment to Five Star Real Estate. In 2023, she returned to Keller Williams as an associate broker, running her own team of eight people in an office located at 2624 Portage St.
Harrington’s life now includes owning a home on Westnedge Hill; being married to her husband, Harold, “a wonderful man and so sweet,” whom she met while attending WMU (professionally, he is finance director of international compliance at Stryker Corp. and has served as Face Off Theatre Company’s treasurer); and being the mother of three children, Lyla (14), Hunter (9) and Stella (4).
“They’re theater kids,” Harrington says of her children. “Every step that I’ve taken in theater in Kalamazoo my kids have been with me. They’ve been on stage for rehearsals either while I was pregnant or after they were born.”
Relatedly, she recalls her preteen epiphany in L.A. and says, “Traditionally, people think kids are too young to discover their purpose. We think they don’t know.” To youngsters, she says, “Whatever is in you as a gift or a talent, it’s in there. You were born with that.” To parents, she advises, “All we need to do is make sure that we are providing the opportunities for those gifts to be cultivated.”
Within their own family, Marissa and Harold are cultivating Lyla’s love of cross-country running, Hunter’s penchant to illustrate comic books and play sports, and Stella’s interest in music and dance.
Their youngest, born in 2019, has special needs. “I call her ‘homie with an extra chromie’ because she has Down syndrome,” Harrington says. “She was a preemie born four weeks early and then held in NICU for 17 days. She had trouble breathing and a rapid heart rate. We were by her side every day, and she came home on Christmas Eve.
“She’s thriving now in preschool. She’s a spitfire, charismatic, loving and affectionate.”
Founding Face Off
The star of Harrington’s theatrical life is Face Off Theatre Company, which she founded in 2015 along with five other Black women who had recently graduated from WMU’s theater and playwriting programs. Those five — Janai Lashon, Tanisha Pyron, Bianca Washington, Kendra Flournoy and Mickey Moses — are still associated with Face Off in some way and are collaborating on planning the company’s 10-year anniversary celebration, in 2025.
“We were, you know, fresh and green,” Harrington says. “We had our master’s or undergrad degrees and our talent and passion and creative energy, and there was nowhere to put it, so we just said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do theater together?’
“We asked ourselves, ‘What is going to make us different? What is going to set us apart? What do we care about?’ And we decided that we want Kalamazoo to be impacted by our presence, whatever that means.”
That intention led to the company’s name. “We asked if Face Off was confrontational. We agreed that it was, and then we also agreed that we were okay with that,” Harrington says.
“When you take your face off, you’re taking off your mask, so, as a company, we are intending to bring the community together by taking our masks off, looking at our reflections in the mirror and asking, ‘Are we the best community that we can be right now? Are we as diverse as we can be, as equitable as we can be? What has theater looked like traditionally and where have actors of color been placed in theater? Are you OK with that?’”
Thus empowered, the founders of Face Off Theatre Company approached the Black Arts & Cultural Center, which at that time produced two theatrical shows per year. The FOTC founders proposed to become BACC’s in-house theater production team and do four shows a year in exchange for BACC being FOTC’s nonprofit fiduciary.
From that energetic, yet humble beginning, Face Off has evolved to become a nonprofit entity of its own. It has attained semi-professional status (using both Actors Equity and non-union talent and paying some people but not others) and is the only theater company in Southwest Michigan that features only people of color. In 2024, it will produce six shows, the first time the company has presented more than four in a season.
Face Off also fulfills its mission of making an impact on its community in two dynamic ways: Shows are written and characters portrayed by people with diverse ethnicities, and every performance is followed by a “community conversation” with the audience.
“We are the only ones to do this in the community who do it solely and with 100 percent accessibility. Face Off Theatre’s mission is to create meaningful work that inspires and sparks change in our community through providing a space that empowers, develops and supports artists of color,” Harrington says, quoting the company’s mission statement. “We present audiences with fresh and innovative work that is inspirational, entertaining and thought-provoking and create transcendent theater art that explores the complexity and richness of the Black experience, as well as encouraging cross-cultural dialogue that illuminates and expands our understanding of the universal human experience.”
The community conversations are pivotal to achieving this mission, Harrington says. “People go to the theater or the movies or a poetry reading or a dance recital wanting to be entertained, but art is activism, right? As artists, we have this opportunity to impact the audience. We have them fresh. We have their ears to learn something new, a different perspective. Then we give them the opportunity to talk and ask questions about what they observed in the show.”
These community conversations also create a catalyst for collaboration. Usually, Harrington leads these discussions, but sometimes Face Off partners with another organization that has an interest in a particular show. For example, in October, staff of The Kalamazoo Promise led a community conversation after the Face Off performance of Exit Strategy, which is about the closing and razing of a public high school in Chicago.
“We prioritize Black artists because Blacks don’t have enough opportunities to tell their stories, but we want to be inclusive of other ethnic groups too,” Harrington says. “We have to strike a balance between empowering ourselves as a Black community while recognizing that there is space for depending on others.”
Face Off Theatre Company has done at least one collaborative show with another community group or theater company each year, including Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo College, the WMU Department of Theatre, Read and Write Kalamazoo, and Uplift Kalamazoo. FOTC has also worked with local talent Buddy Hannah, who was featured in the production of Sunset Baby in 2018, and the company is very close with the family of local theater luminary Von Washington Sr., of Washington Productions. Washington was a professor for several of the company’s founders when they were students at WMU, and Face Off co-founder Bianca Washington is his niece.
“We don’t learn by staying in our own lane,” Harrington says. “We learn by being vulnerable and open and collaborating and dependent on somebody else. We learn by seeing who does things differently than we do and vice versa, having tough conversations, unpacking to see if our heart is in the right place.”
The company’s philosophy of inclusivity is also evident in its pricing policy. The suggested minimum donation for a show is $5. “If somebody wants to pay $20 or $25 for a ticket, that’s OK. Absolutely. But if somebody wants to go to a show and they only have $5, that’s OK too. Come on in,” Harrington emphasizes.
FOTC receives financial support from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, Stryker Corp., the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Uplift Kalamazoo, and Sisters in Business.
As FOTC’s managing artistic director, Harrington is in charge of what she calls the “eagle’s-eye view” of the company, “making sure,” she says, “that we’re on task with our mission and vision, making sure the company is running right, and being visible in the community.”
Other key people are Face Off’s production manager, Milan Levy; arts manager, Kayde Moore; dramaturg, Dr. Shealin Shobowale-Benson; house and volunteer manager, Betty Lenzy; ensemble member in charge of costumes and props, Zaynee Miller; and community engagement manager, Khadijah Brown.
Currently Face Off productions are staged in the intimate, theatre-in-the-round setting of the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre, in the Epic Center, in downtown Kalamazoo, but Harrington and Face Off’s board have set intentions in their three-year strategic plan for FOTC to own its own space and attain full professional status.
On a personal level, Harrington has a goal of offering yoga for actors and artists, for which she is a certified instructor.
“As actors and artists, we put ourselves on the line emotionally and physically when we’re doing our work,” she says. “There’s a lot of negative impressions placed on our bodies by taking on all the trauma of heavy drama.” Yoga, she says, is a tool to help creative individuals process that trauma through thoughtful movement and breath.
Her personal motivation for practicing yoga is simple and relates to the fabric of her life beyond the stage. “I have kids and a husband. I have a business to run. I don’t have the luxury of being immersed in a character for months. I need to be able to separate.”
As for the overall mission of Face Off Theatre Company, she sums it up like this: “We’re centered around community collaboration, community discourse, betterment of the community. We feel this is a mission that people will be able to hear, subscribe to and invest in.” It’s an apt description of her personal mission as well.