For Harvey Williams, founder and executive director at local theater company KC Melting Pot, the show does not start when the stage lights up and the actors come out.
At KC Melting Pot, “the show starts well before the lights come on. The show starts when people walk in,” Williams said. “The theater experience is not just on stage.”
KC Melting Pot focuses on making their space welcoming and safe for everyone. In fact, Williams said, it’s difficult to get people to leave after shows. That’s how much they enjoy the experience.
“Everyone is welcome and we try to create a communal experience where people feel seen, heard and recognized. We really want this to be a people’s theater,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, artistic director for KC Melting Pot and one of the directors for the theater’s 2021-22 season.
Williams created KC Melting Pot in 2012 to give Black and minority actors, playwrights and directors a platform that he saw they were missing in Kansas City.
“Usually, if you want to go anywhere for theater, you have to leave Kansas City. You cannot stay here and get established. You have to go to Chicago or New York or overseas,” Williams said. “But KC Melting Pot gives them a platform. They don’t have to leave. They could get a reputation right here in Kansas City.”
Since its start, KC Melting Pot has provided a space for Black playwrights to have their work performed on a stage with a diverse team of actors, stage managers and directors. The theater company also has classes to train those who are interested in theater production. The group holds monthly workshops for playwrights in the community to bring their work in and receive feedback from experienced writers, actors and directors.
This season, titled “Still Standing” highlights local Black women directors, who are frequently ignored and left out of the theater industry.
“Many of us Black women directors have been directing for many, many years, and then suddenly, ‘discovered’ by a mainstream White theater or Hollywood, when many of us have 20-plus years of experience working in theater,” said Hodges Persley, who is a nationally recognized scholar in Black theater and a highly credentialed director.
Although highly accomplished, she finds herself having to work much harder than her White male counterparts to gain the same attention they do.
“I’ve been directing for 20 years and I’m still striving for visibility, and to say that I make my living 100% as a director, that just isn’t feasible a lot of times,” Hodges Persley said.
To increase visibility of other accomplished Black women directors in Kansas City, she decided to have each of the four plays this season directed by Black women.
“So often, Black women directors, we have to go work at predominately White theaters to be seen,” Hodges Persley said. “I really want to disrupt that and draw attention to the excellence in our theater with our stories, with our directors. We’re going to keep making noise and drawing attention.”
The theme “Still Standing” covers Black resilience and the ways Black families grapple with the injustices they face.
The first play in the season, “Baybra’s Tulips,” written by Lewis Morrow and directed by Hodges Persley premiered Sept. 16 and will run through Sept. 25. The play follows a Black man who served 10 years in prison and comes home to reconnect with his family.
“Two Trains Running,” written by August Wilson and directed by Melonnie Walker runs Dec. 2-11. This play depicts African-American life in the 1960s just after the assassination of Malcolm X.
“Barbecue,” written by Robert O’Hara and directed by Lynn King will run Feb. 9-19, 2022. The play follows a White and Black family at a backyard barbecue working through their troubles.
“Begetters,” written by Lewis Morrow and directed by Ile Haggins runs May 12-21, 2022. This play focuses on an aging Black couple as they reflect on their own dysfunction and how it has affected the lives of their adult children.
“I hope people walk away with a spirit of inspiration and knowing that they’re not alone in their struggle,” Hodges Persley said. “This theater is a place where we can rehearse opportunities for change and opportunities for us to heal and think about ways to thrive, instead of just surviving.”
Melting Pot Theater productions are performed at the Just Off Broadway Theater, 3051 Penn Valley Drive, KCMO. To buy tickets for the shows, visit KC Melting Pot’s website: https://kc-meltingpot-theatre.square.site/#.