The Army And The Theater Gave This Kansas City Director Useful Insights Into Diversity
Growing up in Kansas City, Harvey Williams lived near 12th Street and Vine in what used to be called the Wayne Minor Projects.
"It was the heart of the city, the heat of the city, especially for black people," he says.
But it was in the United States Army, as the Vietnam War was winding down, that he learned about diversity.
Williams went on to become an actor, playwright and theater director. He started the Melting Pot Theater, which had its first show in 2013, to stage works by people of many backgrounds, but especially those who might not have had access to that kind of platform in the past.
The two distinctinctly different experiences, one creative, the other rigid and rule-based, have given him useful perspective as the country struggles with diversity.
Williams joined the Army almost on impulse ("at that age, you're invincible") and now thinks he probably romanticized what it meant to serve ("you don't think about the body bags"). But the lessons in diversity have stuck.
"Honestly, in the service, I have to say that was probably the greatest socialization experience that I had. Because I was raised in the city," he says. "But when I joined the service, of course, then I met people from all over the country, other cities as well as the rural areas, you know, individuals from the Appalachia, places like that. And these were truly people I did not know."
Relying intensely on one another, while under strict rules where it didn't matter who you were or where you came from, might not have made everyone friends. But it did connect people quickly, on a deeply human level.
"This was kind of the spoonfed diversity. Like you did not have a choice and you either survived with it, you learned how to deal with it, or you didn't."
That's been as true in Kansas City's theater scene as anywhere else, where Williams says "the spaces were very narrow. It was a little bit of who you knew, who you didn't know."
That's why Williams started the Melting Pot Theater at a point in his life where he'd just retired from being an adult educator at the Kansas City Public Schools and planned to spend his days sitting on the front porch, "watching the mailman run back and forth."
As director, Williams reads every script that comes his way, even if he's never heard of someone, even if they don't have a resume.
"You can't just outwardly say, well I've never heard of you. What have you done before? And that's the criteria," he explains. "It's a little bit about taking taking chances with people and giving them an opportunity to succeed or fail."
That's how it was for him when a theater instructor at UMKC urged him to perform in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," even though he'd never been in a play and nothing in the script required a black actor onstage. It was the experience of doing theater that got him interested in pursuing it more seriously.
For many of his years on stage performing iconic roles in major production, Williams often played roles for black men that were written by someone else, such as the chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy." Made famous by the 1989 Hollywood film adaptation, the story is about a hard-won tenderness that develops between a white woman and her black chauffeur in the Civil Rights-era South.
"It's a nice story," says Williams, "but . . . more like a fairy tale than the real deal."
Williams recalls connecting with the parts of the story where the white character assumes an air of superiority and the chauffeur breaks it down for her: "Like, look, whatever the situation is socially, if you want me to do something, you talk to me like I'm a man."
But ultimately, the chauffeur's storyline stops short, and he's mostly a prop for the white character's redemption.
"If you're going to tell a story about a black man in the South, it's probably going to be more authentic if it comes from a black person," he says.
That's why Williams decided not to spend his retirement years on his front porch. He wrote his own play and saw it through to production. The experience was so rewarding that he wanted to give others a chance to do the same. The Melting Pot's 2019-2020 season includes four major productions and a constant rotation of cultural event series, such as a black movie marathon earlier this summer. Wilson is currently directing August Wilson's "King Hedley II," set to open at the Melting Pot this fall.
Diversity isn't just about one aspect of a play, says Williams. It's about everything from the real-world origins of the story to who is the story about to who is telling this story and who's going to show the story on stage, and finding a continuity from beginning to end. And it's the truthfulness of the story he cares about, not the size of audience he thinks he can get.
"If it's a story that carries weight, a few people seeing it is more valuable than a hundred people seeing some fluff as far as I'm concerned, because then you can grow that. You can grow truth just like you can grow a fantasy and what's more valuable?"
Williams says he doesn't think diversity is something you have to create. What you have to do is make space for diversity rather than shutting it out.
"Diversity is there. You walk out your door, open your eyes, you experience diversity," he says. "But you go into certain spaces and you don't see that diversity."
Harvey Williams spoke with KCUR for a portrait session, in-depth interviews with the most interesting people in Kansas City. Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @kcurCST.