Melanee Murray-Hunt

An image of Melanee Murray-Hunt
Melanee Murray-Hunt | Photo courtesy of Melanee Murray-Hunt

Melanee Murray-Hunt

Local actor takes a break from television and theatre to explore her roots through film

Melanee Murray-Hunt is calling from Baltimore, where she started her acting career at the age of 14, having been one of seven budding actors to gain acceptance into the Baltimore School for the Arts theatre department.

Since then, Melanee (full disclosure: I’m married to her) has acted on stage in New York, in Los Angeles on shows such as 24, Judging Amy, Everybody Loves Raymond, on Nickelodeon as a series regular in a show called 100 Deeds of Eddie McDowd, and K-Pax, where she played a mute in a film that featured Oscar winners Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Oscar and Emmy nominee Alfre Woodard.

For the past 16 years, she’s called Calgary home, and while it’s not Hollywood, the gigs keep coming.

There were lead roles in The M-fer with a Hat for Alberta Theatre Projects and the role of Calpurnia in a Theatre Calgary production of To Kill a Mockingbird. She’s acted on Heartland, Young Drunk Punk, Joe Pickett, numerous independent films created and directed by Alberta filmmakers, and most recently, a new Netflix series called My Life With the Walter Boys.

A New Chapter

The Calgary chapter of Murray-Hunt’s creative life doesn’t stop with acting, either.

Looking to tell the stories of people of colour in a western Canadian city back in 2007, she wrote The Venus of Basin Street, a lyrical drama about two Black sisters in the early 1900’s, one of whom is a teacher in Chatham and the other who has been kidnapped and forced to work as a prostitute in a New Orleans brothel, until her sister travels to New Orleans to rescue her.

The Venus of Basin Street was produced at the 2007 Ignite Festival by Sage Theatre, and again a few years later by Urban Curvz.

She took The Hoodwink, a hip-hop version of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, a story about a Black single mom/neo soul singer in a career rut who transforms into a teenage boy in order to enter a reality TV series searching for America’s next great rapper, that had been a screenplay and adapted it into a one-person show where she performed all 11 parts.

It won the Calgary One-Act Play Festival and had a run at the Calgary Fringe Festival, and has also been produced at several solo act festivals in New York.

She’s also turned to directing over the past several years, making a half dozen films including Race Anonymous (Best Drama, Edmonton Short Film Festival 2016), Do the Math, a film adaptation of The Hoodwink, The Trial of Miss Madumbe, and The Invincible Jayson Garvey, a film inspired by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2013. Melanee’s play version of this story was part of the RBC Playwriting Mentorship Program in 2015 and she has been refining this story as both a web series and play.

There have been initiatives launched by Calgary Arts Development over the past several years to connect Calgary artists with Calgary business and nonprofits, and Murray-Hunt has been a part of those initiatives as well, including the the Artist As Changemakers Cohort (AACH) at the Trico Changemakers Studio at Mount Royal University. Through that program, she and other artists committed to social change work with various non-profits organizations to address their “wicked problems” through the artistic process.

During the height of the pandemic in 2021, Melanee worked, through AACH, guided by the input of Sagesses’ committed team of social workers and advisers to create a mini-web series illustrating the subtleties of a form of domestic violence called “coercive control.”

The series was shot entirely on Zoom. It was both a creative solution to how to tell stories during a global pandemic, but more importantly, an illustration of how domestic abuse is not always physical. Three different stories of intimate partner violence explored the harm caused by emotional manipulation and less overt, but equally impactful forms of threatening, controlling behaviour.

Murray-Hunt was also enlisted to create a theatre production – Our Canada, Our Story – a project for ActionDignity, a non-profit that’s dedicated to enhancing the voices of ethnocultural communities in Calgary. The production was launched as two different versions in 2017 and 2019. The first production, launched for Canada’s 150 Celebration, was a dramatization of the various newcomer stories that define Canada- and Calgary. Narratives from the Fillipino, Chinese, Ukrainian, Nigerian, Sikh communities among others were interwoven through the premise of a parent teacher meeting with a school principal – an Indigenous Elder. In the second production, the organization’s executive director, Marichu Antoni, sought a creative solution to how to explore the stories of the children of Calgary newcomers, and their struggles with race and culture in a new home. Melanee did several workshops with diverse Calgary youth to explore their stories about identity and belonging in the heart of the prairies.

This fall, she’s working with the organization again, to help them create a short film that explores some similar themes. It’s part of another lifetime of work mentoring kids to help them live creative lives, which she did with the Virginia Avenue Project in Los Angeles and Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

“Kids are so insightful and creative and great,” she says. “Young people are wise and observant.

“Calgary is as interesting, diverse and dramatic as any other place or city that gets highlighted. Calgary is like New York. It’s rich and diverse and should be a culture capital because it’s international and its youth are international.

“And living through winter strengthens everyone’s resolve to put their mark on this city.”

The Journey

It’s a journey that’s taken her from Baltimore’s School for the Arts (where her theatre classmates included Tupac Shakur, Jada Pinkett and Josh Charles) to Vermont (she went to school at Bennington College), to New York, Los Angeles and Calgary, from acting on stage to television, to filming on sets in Hollywood to fields in southern Alberta.

Along the way, she raised son Gus, launched a storytime at Pages Books, and the Ellipsis Tree theatre collective.

She’s in Baltimore exploring her family’s roots for a documentary film project that she’s working with Caribbean Tales, a Toronto organization that funds projects that tell the stories of Caribbean-descended people of colour.

It turns out that the more Murray-Hunt dug into her Maryland roots, the more she discovered a journey of the African-American diaspora that started in Haiti, moved to New Orleans, and then Ellicott City, Maryland, where her grandparents were free people of colour – but not free of the collective traumas experienced by Black Americans in the early 20th century.

In a way, she wrote Venus of Basin Street before she knew her family history and then it turned out to be very much a part of it.

“I’ve always thought of life as an extremely complex novel full of amazing plot twists,” she says, “where everything is actually interconnected in ways we only dimly and gradually perceive. Our existence here really isn’t random. Everything is intertwined in these intricate and important ways, if we take the time to really observe it all. There is meaning and cohesion to what we initially receive as coincidental, random and inchoate.”

Documenting the Past

Her grandmother just died in 2022, at the age of 110. 

Her documentary is an effort to uncover the roots of her personal history, which is also an inadvertent exploration of the journey of African-Americans over the past four centuries.

“This documentary has allowed me to really know, in a more visceral way, how connected I am to something larger than my own individual moment,” she says. “Maybe my commitment to social change is almost… biological? Ancestral. I feel it more and more as I talk to my relatives and do research.

“I am connected to something greater than myself, that I am just like a great great grandfather I never knew and my mother is like a great grandfather she never knew,” she says. “My ancestors were activists, thinkers, and creators even in the 19th and early 20th century.”

All of this creative living has unfolded in Calgary over the past decade and a half, which sort of corresponds exactly to the amount of time that the Calgary Arts Development Authority came into existence, thanks to the determination by some people that great cities need great arts communities.

Calgary looks different now than it did in 2006. There are murals on the walls of buildings all over town. The film and television industry is now booming, with studio spaces sprouting up across the city and a network of Emmy-nominated technical crews and a community of artists that make producing here such a good bet, both creatively and financially.

Murray-Hunt, like all resourceful artists, has developed so many tools in her creative toolkit that if one doesn’t happen, a half dozen others pop up. She was just accepted to do the MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC, online, and is scrambling to manage her time to fit in starting a master’s program in September.

Why does it matter to live a creative life?

“Life is creative,” she says.

That takes her back to those old microfiche archives of the two centuries-old Baltimore Afro-American, and the revelations she’s uncovered about her roots.

“It’s amazing to me – that my grandfather was not just as (politically) active but more active than even I have been and he had more at stake and it was almost dangerous for him to do what he did,” she said.

“It’s an incredibly fulfilling, amazing journey,” she adds. “A part of myself is materializing before my very eyes.

“Like in Star Trek, when people start materializing from transporters – that’s what I’m experiencing.

“That’s what learning about my ancestors feels like.”

About the Storytelling Project

The Storytelling Project raises awareness about Calgarians who, by living creative lives, are making Calgary a better city, effecting positive change and enriching others’ lives.

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