“Old School,” the play by Harvey Williams that established KC MeltingPot Theatre as an incubator for emerging playwrights and a platform for minority actors to reach wider audiences, is back.
And with it comes an artistic duo that helped make it a memorable event when it was first staged in 2013: Theodore “Priest” Hughes and Desmond “3-3-7” Jones, poets and actors who perform as the Recipe Poetry Guild.
They’ve been labeled slam poets, hip-hop poets, spoken-word artists — but they define themselves by their own specific genre: dramatic art and rhythm.
“We try to bring the theatrical aspect to our performance as well as what we write,” Jones said.
“Old School Ghetto Gospel,” as the play was originally called, told an inner-city fable about a street-corner philosopher named Old School who acts as a catalyst in a dramatic comedy about a family that has been affected by urban violence.
At various points in the performance, poetic interludes were performed by Hughes and Jones, charismatic performers whose verse addresses philosophical and social issues, among other topics. The pre-existing material was not directly connected to Williams’ narrative, but its gritty sensibility complemented the play.
Williams played the title role in the first production. This time he’s in the director’s chair and has handed the role over to veteran actor Granvile O’Neal.
Williams said he had not substantially rewritten the script, but this time he hoped the Recipe’s contribution would reflect certain tragic events in recent years that have galvanized the African-American community, including the slaying of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, and the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer last year in the St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson.
“It was our first production, the production that kind of started MeltingPot,” Williams said. “The response to the show I thought was tremendous. In literally talking to people after the show was over, I didn’t realize how it actually did resonate with the audience who had just gone through or experienced some of the things in the play. So storywise there wasn’t much to rewrite, but from a production side I wanted to enhance the story.”
Which is why he invited Hughes and Jones back. Williams first met the poets in the summer of 2012, when he went to their Kansas City Fringe Festival performance at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. The duo let loose with dramatic performances that echoed themes in “Old School,” a script that Williams had kept in a drawer for years.
“After he saw our show, he was just sitting there watching with a crazy look on his face, and it was like, ‘What?’” Hughes recalled. “He felt like the poetry was perfect for his play just as it was. And it did fit very well with the play. He basically gave us the script and let us pick and choose where we wanted to perform. It seems like he, 3-3-7 and I have some kind of psychic connection, because every play he’s written, it seems like we had material that was very similar.”
In the original production, Jones and Hughes performed stand-alone pieces that existed outside the world of the play. This time, Williams said, he has found a way to integrate them into the action as two street-corner habitues who are part of Old School’s little community of philosophers.
Hughes, 49, and Jones, 39, have been performing together about 11 years. The original Recipe Poetry Guild had about 10 members, but some gradually dropped out. They met one night at an open-mic event at the Blue Room at 18th and Vine. Hughes, who grew up in Kansas City, had recently returned from Atlanta, where he lived several years.
“One of the things I thought poetry needed was truth,” Hughes said. “So I approached him and actually a bunch of other poets (to form the Recipe), and we’re the two still hangin’.”
Within the broader Kansas City poetry scene, Jones and Hughes are unique in more ways than one. If you attend one of their events, don’t expect to find them reading in a monotone from a piece of copy paper or a paperback book. They memorize all their material, and everything they do is performance-oriented.
“We rehearse three hours a day five days a week,” Hughes said.
Jones added: “We prefer the freedom of memorization. Having that script in your hand is a handicap.”
Hughes was a founder of the Kansas City Black Poets Collective. But he said he and Jones wanted to reach as many other poets — and as wide an audience — as possible. They’ve performed at the Writers Place, the Kansas City Public Library, the Uptown Theatre. They’ve taught at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas. They’ve performed for the Latino Writers Collective.
“This is about poetry, and everybody does it different,” Hughes said.
Jones and Hughes have released several CDs, but they don’t yet have a website. (They say one may be online soon.) Some of their work can be heard at their Reverbnation.com channel, The Recipe.. And you can find some of their performances as well as interviews on YouTube.
They’ve appeared as actors in conventional plays at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Gradually, the poets have elevated their profile with performances in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
Perhaps most amazing of all? They make their living as poets.
“When you add the acting and our gigs as teaching artists, that’s enough to make a living,” Hughes said. “I can pay all my bills, and I don’t have to go to work for anyone else.”
For his part, Jones said he was driven by the art. Acclaim is secondary.
“I don’t care if I’m famous or not, for real,” he said. “I just want people to understand where I’m coming from. I’m a recluse.”