Only one person showed up for KC Melting Pot Theatre’s premiere show in 2013. In a house that holds 200 people, a sole audience member was treated to an unintentionally private performance.
The nonprofit company has come a long way from that first evening, recently introducing a new associate artistic director, solidifying a playwright-in-residence and preparing to open its second show of 2016, the world premiere of “A Soft Escape.”
“We’re still one of the little trains that could, and we’re not ashamed of it,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, who has stepped into the new director position.
That mentality is present in “A Soft Escape,” opening Aug. 26. Written by the company’s playwright-in-residence S.M. Shephard-Massat (who is actually based out of Atlanta), the show includes only three actors (all local) and no theatrical gimmicks — just a stripped-down, deep dive into the lives of a black empty-nester couple in the South. As they reach their golden years and their bodies begin to decline, the husband and wife slowly reveal their dirty laundry and life secrets while sitting in the backyard on a hot summer night.
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“It’s a little like a family reunion where the cap pops off,” said Harvey Williams, who plays husband William and is also the founder of KC Melting Pot. “To me, I see them dealing with the usuals of raising a family. A lot of it has to do with, once the family’s raised, where they’re at as a couple.”
This will be the second show by Shephard-Massat that KC Melting Pot has produced — the first being “Waiting to Be Invited” last year — and most likely the last. Because the company aims to give opportunities to emerging artists, Williams said Melting Pot may look for another playwright-in-residence to develop skills in Kansas City.
Hodges Persley, who’s directing “A Soft Escape,” praised Shephard-Massat’s ability to capture Southern African-American vernacular in her scripts. And the playwright offers a different voice from say, August Wilson’s female characters, because she’s actually a woman writing about female experiences (in this case, the wife Beverly, played by Lynette Sparkman-Barnes).
“It’s dealing with interior monologues that women have in relationships,” Hodges Persley said. “(Beverly) talks about what it’s like to be a mother and a wife and a caretaker and having sacrificed her own career and ambitions for her family. I think it has kind of given her a little bitterness. … It’s pretty challenging to watch.”
But it’s not a just a downer of a play; like many black families, Williams said, the characters use comedy to deal with their problems. The play captures the tendency of married couples to finish each other’s sentences, strengthening the relationship onstage.
“There are punchlines that get started on the honeymoon, and 50 years later, it’s still a punchline,” he said. “That’s how deep the carry-on is.”
This production is the world premiere of the play, but Hodges Persley and the cast aren’t feeling any abnormal pressure. In fact, the actors’ jobs are made easier because they’re originating the roles — not stepping into someone else’s shoes. Their director has helped them mold the characters and evolve the show by staying in contact with the playwright.
“The script I read is nothing like what we have going on now,” Williams said. “It’s like having an inflatable beach ball and no air in it. And then you blow it up, and it’s this beautiful thing that you can toss — and that’s kind of what it’s like. I think that much life has been put into it.”
Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its 25th season by hosting 25 events in collaboration with other arts organizations. The first is Playwright Slam, Aug. 29 at the Spencer Theatre Donor Lounge, 4949 Cherry St. Playwrights can bring a Shakespeare-inspired script to the free event and see their work performed in a staged reading in this collaboration with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. See Ticketing.KCRep.org.