Remember this name: Manny Houston (short for Immanuel)—the oldest of five children raised by a pastor father and motivational speaker mother—is about to make his mark. Or, marks, actually. As an actor, a musician, or a dancer? Yes. More than your average triple threat, Houston, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in classical piano performance from the College of Charleston, wants to be known as a “creative.” He’s as comfortable filling in behind a keyboard for a last-minute nightclub gig as he is choreographing a theater show—which he is also probably acting in. Look for him starring as the Donkey in Shrek the Musical at South Carolina Children’s Theatre beginning September 8. Then, start looking for him everywhere.
So you’ve just moved back to Greenville after being in Charleston? >> Yes, I just got back and I’m super excited to be working at South Carolina Children’s Theatre because that was the first place I learned to express myself artistically. I’m doing Shrek and also there is an outreach program at SCCT where we tour at different elementary schools with a play about bullying called The Boy Who Cried Bully, from the beginning of September through the end of November. Also, I’m doing sound design for the Warehouse Theatre for their new show, The Tempest.
Is that what you were doing in Charleston? >> I was really known in Charleston for hip-hop stuff, and I kind of helped build up the scene there hosting these weekly jams where I was inviting out rappers to rap with live instrumentation behind them. Now that I’m back in Greenville, that’s kind of what I’m doing. My goal is to see my city embrace hip-hop more and help get it to the next level and make sure that people respect all the artistry that’s here.
It’s time for that for sure, and it sounds like you’re ready to be back? >> Yes, definitely. Though this sounds weird because I’m only here for a little bit because I think as artists we profit more when we go out into the world and allow the world to see all of our talents. Whether it’s on the level of somebody like Drake or it’s on the level as someone as small as an indie artist you have never heard of, it’s important that we go to different places like LA, New York, and Chicago and then bring all the connections that we just made back to our city because that’s the only way we’re going to end up growing.
Is that your plan then, LA? >> Yes, I’ll probably be moving out that way at the end of December.
How exciting! What’s the ultimate goal? >> The big goal is to be the best at whatever I do. I don’t consider myself a musician. I don’t consider myself an actor, and I don’t consider myself a dancer, even though those are all things that I do. I consider myself a creative in the way that Donald Glover works, for instance. I’ve just always wanted to be known as a creative. So when I go out to LA, that’s my number-one job: I’m trying to be competing with Donald Glover. That Saturday Night Live [episode] where he was the host and the guest artist . . . you know what I mean?
As artists, we profit more when we go out and allow the world to see all of our talents. —Manny Houston
Where did this start? Is your family musical? >> Everybody is mad creative, but nobody’s musical, really, except for my brother, Nehemiah. He’s a little musical and he plays guitar and sings a little bit. But everybody is very creative. My mom homeschooled all of us. My family is my heartbeat and a big reason why I came back. My mom always inspired everybody to be the best at whatever they were doing, and do it to the best of their abilities.
Homeschooling five children—wow! She sounds awesome! >> Teisha Houston. She’s a motivational speaker. She calls herself a ‘business coach for moms.’ She is probably one of the most phenomenal people I know. And that’s not just me saying that because she’s my mom. This woman is very, very smart and plugged in.
Photography by Will Crooks
You have a motivational attitude, which is great to have at an early start in your career. >> My mom had a lot of books that a lot of people would consider neo-spiritual and she kept them around the house and she really instilled a very good sense of reading into us. And when I say ‘really instilled,’ I mean my first date was at a library (laughs).
How do you know performance is your life’s pursuit? >> So I grew up really religious, and inundated by that as a pastor’s kid, and as I got older, I fell away from it all. I was still playing [piano] at church, but I ended up realizing that the time I feel this idea of closeness to God is when I play music. It didn’t matter if I was playing at a bar, a club, a wedding, at church—I felt the same thing any time I played music. I always learned at a young age that God is love, and as I got older I realized, oh, if I’m doing what I love, then that is God. That sounds weird or out there, but that’s what I realized and this makes me feel close to a higher being and in touch with the universe and what’s going on around me, and this is what I have to do.
Manny Houston will be performing as Donkey in the South Carolina Children’s Theatre production of Shrek the Musical, September 8–23. For more information visit scchildrenstheatre.org.