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Kansas City's Melting Pot Theatre uses 'Barbecue' to address race, family relationships and addiction

TK Photography/Thomas Kimble
In "Barbecue," siblings, from left to right, James T (Dennis Jackson), Adlean (Jackie Price), Marie (Brittany Evans) and Lillie Anne (Markeyta L. Young) gather for a barbecue that's actually an intervention.

A Black-owned theatre company, KC Melting Pot is the resident company of Just Off Broadway Theatre in Penn Valley Park and has presented well-timed work since launching in 2013.

Family dynamics are often fodder for comic relief and a staple for writers — including playwrights.

At KC Melting Pot Theatre, Robert O'Hara's play “Barbecue” opens as James T. and his three sisters, Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean, gather at a park for a barbecue.

But it’s a disguise for an intervention. Their plan is to confront their sister, Barbara, about her drug and alcohol use and convince her to go to rehab.

“The play is actually a comedy, and it’s done in a satirical style,” says actor and director Lynn King, who’s directing her second show with KC Melting Pot. She explains that the main subjects are "intervention, addiction, family dynamics, politics and the kind of universality of those issues."

Actors Jackie Price and Brittany Evans are making their debuts with the company.

“She has her own, should I say, struggle with some addiction,” says Price, about the sister she portrays, Adlean. “But at the same time, she's just so caught up in some of the other family drama.”

Brittany Evans plays another sister, Marie, who, also struggles with addiction. But, she says, the dialogue is surprisingly funny.

“We are talking about real-life issues like addiction,” Evans says, “but it's some comedic relief so that we can get people comfortable about talking about it.”

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
At KC Melting Pot Theatre, actors Jackie Price (at left) and Brittany Evans (at right) are making their debut in "Barbecue." Director and actor Lynn Evans (center) was cast in the company's first production in 2013.

There are quite a few twists and turns in “Barbecue” — such as O’Hara’s call for double casting.

In the first act, there’s a blackout and when the lights come back on, the four siblings on stage are four new actors. The same characters, the same situation — but they are Black instead of white.

“There’s a white family and a Black family that kind of mirror each other if you will,” director Lynn King says. “They are experiencing the same story, but from different perspectives.”

TK Photography/Thomas Kimble
"Barbecue" has two casts: a white family, which opens the show, and a Black family. Both families are dealing with sibling dynamics and drug addiction. Sibling James T (John Van Winkle), Adlean (Jessica Whitfield), Marie (Briana Van Deusen) gather in a public park.

The subject of race is part of KC Melting Pot Theatre's own story.

About a decade ago, Harvey Williams, an African American writer, actor and director, was searching for a venue to stage his own play, “Old School.” And Just Off Broadway Theatre in Penn Valley Park offered him the space.

“He just didn’t have the opportunity in Kansas City that he thought he needed,” says Linda Williams, KC Melting Pot’s general manager. “And so we started the company (in 2013) with that purpose and quickly branched out into giving access to other Black playwrights, actors, directors.”

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
KC Melting Pot Theatre's general manager, Linda Williams, also serves as the executive director of Just Off Broadway Theatre.

But things came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. And like most arts organizations, KC Melting Pot pivoted to online programming.

To launch their new season in 2021, artistic director Nicole Hodges Persley invited patrons back with shows featuring Black female directors, challenging the gender bias in the industry.

"You know, we wanted to have a platform, where women could feel safe to direct the kind of work that they want to direct," she says, "and be matched with titles and artists that would allow them to flourish."

Persley, an artist-scholar who teaches at KU, has expanded the scope of the company’s productions to include local and national playwrights like O’Hara. She says “Barbecue” invites a dialogue about shared experiences and trauma — presenting an opportunity to bring diverse audiences together.

“I think this is a topic that people think only touches a particular community,” Persley says, “and this touches across racial lines.”

KC Melting Pot Theatre’s “Barbecue” runs through Feb. 19 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive, Kansas City, Missouri. COVID protocols include proof of full vaccination, or negative COVID-19 test, identification and masks.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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