Good People of Playback (Dr. Theresa Montgomery Okwumabua)

Dr. O has been a supporter since the beginning. She is truly a pioneer in our work.

Dr. Theresa Montgomery Okwumabua 
Pioneer Edition – Celebrating ten years

How long have you lived in Memphis?

I first came to Memphis in 1977 to attend the University of Memphis, where I received my doctorate in Experimental Psychology in 1981. I left Memphis in 1982 an moved to New Mexico for four years, lived briefly in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a year and then back to Memphis in 1987. I’ve been here since then, which is a little more than 30 years.

How long have you been a part of Playback Memphis?

That’s a great question because I feel like I’ve been involved with Playback Memphis since it took roots in Memphis. I recall having conversations with Holly Lau about Playback Memphis as early as 2010, which would have been a few years after the company was founded in Memphis.

What/who inspired you to be an artist? or What/Who inspired you to get involved with Playback? 

 I don’t really view myself as an artist. In fact, I have to really stretch myself to think of myself as artistic in any way. When I was young, I tried singing and thought I was doing a decent job until I did a solo at church one Sunday. I must have covered every range of “Bless This House” in the verse I sang. I was so “bad” that it was hard for even my mother to pretend. I’m not sure if I sang much in the choir after that. I know I never sang another solo. That didn’t deter my insight into the power of the creative arts, however, especially as a medium for people to express their encounters with life. As I studied to become a Clinical Psychologist, I realized that traditional approaches in counseling would have to be modified to reach the audience I planned to work with. As I searched for other modalities of therapy and engagement, the arts – creative arts like dance and theater resonated with me.

I learned more about Playback Memphis’ form of improvisational theater while serving as the Project Co-Director for a suicide prevention initiative, Memphis S.T.E.P.S. (Suicide Training, Education, and Prevention Services) targeting college students enrolled at The University of Memphis. It was Holly Lau who actually invited me to a performance. The rest is history. I have partnered with Virginia and Playback Memphis on an array of topics and issues related to mental health/emotional issues ever since.


My husband (Jebose), of 38 years, has been an equal traveler on my journey with Playback Memphis. He attended that first performance to check out the utility of the approach in my suicide prevention work and continues to attend performances with me as we explore ways of assisting youth and young adults in our community deal with their problems/concerns as well as maximize their potential.


I have three (3) adult children, all who are presuming careers in a “helping” profession. Akumdi, my oldest, who is actually an artist who loves working with textiles, is a Program Manager at the Sycamore View Boys & Girls Clubs. Ebubechi (Bechi), my second child and oldest daughter, plans to be an orthopedic surgeon and is in her third year of medical school at Meharry Medical College. Chigozi (Chi Chi), the youngest, is a Clinical Supervisor at Youth Villages. All have attended many Playback Memphis performances and enjoy the art form.


We don’t have any pets in my house and there’s a reason for it. When I was 13 years old, my dog, “Chip-Dooley” left home one morning, never to return. I loved that dog sooooo much that I have never found space for another pet. The closest I’ve come was when we gave Bechi a cockatiel as a birthday present. Unfortunately, he suddenly died about five years later. I recently took on the role of “grandmother” to Chi Chi’s pets.

What do your friends and family think about your Playback-ing?

They love my involvement and are always eager to attend an event with me.

How do you most love to spend your time when you are not Playback-ing?

Cooking or pretending that I’m cooking. I also cherish a good walk and exercising.

What is calling you to be brave these days?

Improving the positive potential of our children is pushing me beyond my comfort level.

What are the perks of being a Playback actor? And/or practicing Playback?

Me acting, NO!! But practicing Playback increases the possibility that I can enjoy healthy, productive, and life-enhancing relationships with others.

Where do you find joy in your life these days?

Everywhere. I enjoy all facets of my life – home, work, social, spiritual. I have found a way to be “content” in all things that I do and experience.

What do you love about Memphis?

The people, weather, and its location.

What are you most proud of in your life and work?

I am most grateful (not so much proud) for a reasonable portion of my health and strength, good family life, and long-term friendships.

Why does Playback matter to you?

I appreciate the courage to address some critical issues in our community; to allow people to express themselves, to hear themselves and to reflect on what is “expressed.”

Why should Playback matter to others?

It is an alternate strategy for dealing with some real and complicated issues. For many, the issues are complicated or too difficult to deal with alone or are more effectively explored within a safe and comfortable environment.

What audience would you like to engage through Playback that Playback hasn’t yet?

It is important to me to continue engaging youth and young adults, from diverse backgrounds in the Playback experience. This is not necessarily a new audience but one that can benefit tremendously from it.

What’s your Playback dream?

That the organization survives for the long run, well beyond Virginia’s involvement with the program.

What do you appreciate about Playback as an artist?

Its dedication to enhancing the quality of human relationships; its understanding of what it takes to develop and create healthy relationships; and its mission to help create these healthy relationships through an experience involving people and elements that are critical to healthy, life-enhancing relationships and life quality.

Do you have a story about a favorite Teller experience?

I chuckle all the time when I think of the first time I shared an important contrasting feeling life experience and it was played back. All of my kids were away at school at the time. Like most moms, I was more than delighted when they arrived, one by one, from school. At the same time, by the time the holiday break was over, I cheered as they got into their cars and departed down the driveway, back to school. Seeing this contrast in feelings played out was hilarious then and even now. I had never thought of it in that way. It was “freeing” to privately and publicly acknowledge that while I love my children, meeting their needs can be draining, leaving one to rejoice when they leave you.

What’s your favorite Playback form- fluids, pairs, etc.? Why?

I like all the forms. Every one of them. I’m always struck by the fact that the players must find ways to project a new response after another player has responded. If forced to select a favorite form, it might be the contrasts because of the message it sends about the changing nature of life experiences.

Does one Playback performance stand out as profoundly affecting to you?

I had several profound experiences while attending a Playback performance. I’m always amazed at the players’ responses and Virginia’s ability to facilitate participants’ journey through some difficult sharing and storytelling. The experience has allowed many of the youth and young adults that we’ve have involved in Playback experiences to share very personal and difficult topics/issues. This has happened each time we have participated in Playback experience.

Favorite cocktail?

I’m not a cocktail person. Coke is it for me!!!!

If you had to pick one ensemble member or staffer to give your eulogy (to speak at your funeral), who would it be and why?

Some combination of Virginia and Ekpe. Virginia because of awesome qualities towards effective counseling relations; her perceptiveness about human relationships, her willingness to look beyond herself to embrace people from all backgrounds and circumstances. Ekpe because of his wisdom and gentle, peaceful spirit. Both possess and manifest qualities I value so, hopefully, their eulogy for me will highlight aspects of my being that complimented these qualities and were instrumental towards us enjoying our journey on earth together and helping to make the world a better place for all.


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Arts Memphis

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