Some of our most honored institutions started humbly. Melting Pot Theater is one.
Harvey Williams, a playwright and actor who has appeared in KC productions of Driving Miss Daisy, The Piano Lesson, Fences and Othello, wanted to stage his own play, Old School, in 2013. Learning of his plan, the management of Just Off Broadway Theater in Penn Valley Park, newly redesigned in 2009, offered him the space.
It was Williams’ wife, Linda Williams, now executive director of Melting Pot, who was the driving force in expanding his plan to produce a single play into creating a full-fledged, ongoing company. Melting Pot began as the only black-owned theater company in the city and dedicated itself to showcasing diverse talent and productions.
Soon, thanks to the Williams’ reputations and the assistance of partners like Warren Deckert, technical director/designer, Melting Pot achieved financial solvency — a feat all the more impressive as it was achieved completely through ticket sales, donations and in-kind services.
Last year the company achieved another milestone when Nicole Hodges Persley, an experienced theater professional who had worked in Los Angeles and New York, signed on as Melting Pot’s associate artistic director.
Persley, a tenured theater professor at KU, moved to the area from Los Angeles in 2009. Locally she has directed A Raisin in the Sun, Welcome to Arroyo’s, Sister Cities and A Comedy of Sorrows. She also worked with poet Glenn North at the American Jazz Museum on the “Rep & Rev” play-reading series.
It was during a stint judging Rocket Grants for the Charlotte Street Foundation, that Persley discovered Harvey Williams and Melting Pot. She knew instantly that she wanted to be involved.
Persley came aboard as a partner in a grand “investment” — for herself personally, and for undiscovered talent and the community. Her favorite quote, often stressed to her students, is from Seneca, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.”
Melting Pot’s past shows include The Session, On Shoulders Now (both written by Williams), JFK, Waiting to Be Invited, Truth Stands and The Taste Test.
A Soft Escape, about a long marriage, love and family history, debuted Aug. 26, 2016, and was directed by Persley. She will also direct Rachel, opening Nov. 10. It is described as an “anti-lynching” play, written by one of the first African-American woman playwrights and first produced in 1916.
Melting Pot will present The Dutchman in February and The Ironing Man in April. The season will end with Harvey’s own 2121, about the “invisible people,” those “with nothing to lose,” victimized by recent economic downturns. Harvey says the inspiration for the play came in part from his teaching GED students in a trailer.
Persley is just as dedicated to giving back and “changing the discourse.” She grew up in inner-city Detroit, where she was nurtured by energizing school arts programs, many since discontinued all over the country. Melting Pot can help overcome that loss.
Shawna Downing and Anna Oakley have been added as co-directors of education and community programs. Cynthia Hardeman, playwright, has taught drama to 5-to- 13-year-olds in the theater and at a drama boot camp held in December. The company also took Old School to Paseo High School and did training there. The company is working to secure 501(c)(3) status in 2017, which will allow it to further expand outreach and mentoring activity.
Melting Pot’s plans include the production of original, emerging and local plays alongside established, traditional selections. Persley mentioned the plays of Edward Albee, perhaps with a new color-conscious element. She’d like to do Zora Neale Huston and other historic authors. Harvey, who has performed with Central Standard in Great Britain and Australia, may bring in international talent in collaboration. And 2017 will see the launch of Persley’s new book on hip-hop in contemporary theater.
“Cultural exchange” is the ultimate goal — all at Melting Pot are committed to it. The only disagreement between Williams and Persley is on the definition of the “season.”
Williams would like it to be calendar year; Persley prefers the more common summer to spring. Whatever they decide, Melting Pot, as the “anchor theater company” for Just Off Broadway, will continue to moor itself in the hearts of Kansas City audiences.