At KC Melting Pot Theatre, It’s All About Forward Momentum

Harvey Williams and Lynn King in “Begetters” (photo by Thomas Kimble, TK Photography)

This fall the prestigious Bloomsbury publishing house will release “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” a trilogy of new works by the theater’s director of new play development

“Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” Bloomsbury Publishing, September 2022  (Bloomsbury Publishing)

This month marks a first in the history of Kansas City theater — a local playwright will see three of his works published by an internationally respected publishing house in a single volume. “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” with an official publication date of Sept. 8, will accomplish two things of inestimable value: The Bloomsbury release under its Methuen Drama imprint will bring national attention among theater professionals and academics to Morrow’s work. And it will highlight the significant short history of Melting Pot Theatre, a modestly funded nonprofit theater company founded in 2013 by playwright/actor Harvey Williams and his wife, Linda Williams. Harvey’s title is founder and executive director. Linda is the general manager.

Gradually and with determination the theater company has grown the scope of its mission and solidified its structure. What began as essentially a community theater is now professional. Nicole Hodges Persley, who edited Morrow’s plays for publication, has been the company’s artistic director since 2019 (following three years as associate artistic director). Morrow is the company’s director of new play development. Melonnie Walker is the company’s director of education and outreach and an August Wilson specialist. It’s a determined group of people, each of whom wears multiple hats.

Bloomsbury, a publishing house whose history includes a unique distinction as the original publisher of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, is based in the United Kingdom but maintains offices in New York and elsewhere. Their published titles are universal in scope, including fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature and academic works. Morrow’s collection will join an impressive range of theater-arts books, including plays by Oscar Wilde, Luigi Pirandello, George Bernard Shaw and 19th-20th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind. Readers can also find the book version of David Byrne’s Broadway show, “American Utopia,” as well as subjects as diverse as the cultural and religious underpinnings of songwriter Leonard Cohen’s work and the unabated significance of the “The Wild Bunch,” director Sam Peckinpah’s bloody, game-changing western.

Morrow, despite the fact that he will be among such august company, said he felt a bit like a spectator as the book release looms.

“The book deal itself, that’s all on the artistic director,” Morrow said. “She’s pretty much been my biggest advocate since I’ve been writing plays.”

Morrow said nothing he has written should be considered strictly autobiographical. But anything he experiences or observes eventually makes it into a script. To date he’s written more than 60 plays, including 29 full-length works.

“Anyone who knows me knows I write every day,” he said. “It’s just a regimen I’ve done for years. I challenged myself once to write a full-length play in one day. And I did — 70 pages. But if it wasn’t for Mr. and Mrs. Williams, nobody would have heard of me. KC Melting Pot IS the Williams. It’s their philosophy, their platform for telling stories that otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to be seen.”

And if any attention the book receives leads to productions of his plays in other theaters in other parts of the country, Morrow said that will be a happy turn of events. It could address what he called “the absence of interest in my work outside of Melting Pot. I got short-listed for a few big-name festivals . . . But I haven’t been produced anywhere nor considered anywhere.”

Morrow’s trilogy includes “Baybra’s Tulips,” performed at Melting Pot last September, in which a released convict comes to live with his sister, allegedly to lead a straight life, but with the actual goal of seeking revenge on his abusive brother-in-law. The second play in the book, “Begetters,” focuses on an aging husband and wife whose grief for a lost family member leads to therapy and grim acceptance; Melting Pot produced the show in May. And coming up this season will be the third work: “Mother/son,” described as a dramedy about a white mother with a cocaine habit and unacknowledged racist views who comes to live with her mixed-race son.

Nicole Hodges Persley, artistic director, KC Melting Pot Theatre (photo by Thomas Kimble, TK Photography)

Persley, herself a published author (Her most recent book is “Sampling and Remixing Blackness in Hip-hop Theater and Performance” from the University of Michigan Press), said she took it upon herself to contact Bloomsbury about Morrow’s work. She believes his trilogy is in the tradition of August Wilson, whose monumental 10-play cycle offered audiences a unique view of Black life in the 20th century.

“This is very important, that we get to tell our stories our way,” Persley said. “And I think Lewis takes up that charge: ‘I’m writing about the community I know, I need to write what I need to write.’ He never once asked for any of it. I said, ‘Let me try this.’ He’s an artist. He’s focused on the work. He’s not focused on Hollywood and New York. I just want people to see it and engage it.”

Before the publishing house would commit to publication, the manuscript containing Morrow’s three plays was sent to a wide range of British and American writers for feedback, Persley said.

“It came back with really great reviews,” she said. “People were enthusiastic and excited to be in process with a new playwright. They were very complimentary.”

Persley said she discovered Melting Pot after she moved to the region from California to accept a position at the University of Kansas as an associate professor of American Studies and African American Studies.

“I discovered the theater as a judge for the Charlotte Street Foundation,” Persley said. It didn’t take long for her to meet Harvey and Linda Williams. Persley believes they initially thought she was very audacious in her bold ideas about what the small company could accomplish. Melting Pot these days seems to be all about forward momentum, despite limited resources. Although actors, directors, designers and technicians are paid for their work on each show, nobody on the administrative staff draws a salary.

“I think we’ve been able to turn this little train around,” Persley said. “And I think the visibility we have by the quality of our work is proof that we’re dedicated to being a voice in the city.”

“This was my goal as artistic director, to make sure that Melting Pot is on the national radar,” Persley said. “The theater is on a pathway now to be an Equity theater. I’m a member of the stage directors’ union and now all of our directors will be in the union.”

Another goal: to address misconceptions about Black theater.  Some directors and theater critics come to the work of African American playwrights with a limited understanding of the culture that gave rise to the likes of August Wilson and the important playwrights who came before him.

“We found that there is a lack of knowledge with critics (and) directors who don’t know a lot of the Black cultural traditions that are embedded in Black theater,” she said. “You have to have knowledge of how different cultures work.”

To learn more about KC Melting Pot and Lewis Morrow, go to www.kcmeltingpot.com.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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