by Sarah Bryan
By returning to his roots, Tyris Jones discovered a new path in life. The Laurinburg native lived away from his hometown for years, but when he came back to live in Scotland County, he was inspired to combine his professional background and his family traditions into a new career as a storyteller.
Jones has always had a love for stories and performance. He remembers absorbing his older relatives’ stories from an early age. While other children were off playing, Jones remembers, “I’m the one that’s sitting on the porch . . . listening to everything [the older family members are] talking about.” The process of learning to read gave him an early appreciation for the written word. Early-childhood struggles with reading led to an intensive immersion in books, and as his skills grew the young Jones shared his love of books with his cousins.
We would get the old discarded library books, and . . . [at] my grandmother’s picnic table . . . sit there and teach ourselves. Sometimes I was the lead teacher. Me and my cousins, we would rotate who would teach this and who would teach that—and I laugh today how it all come full-circle today, using storytelling as a craft.
Jones’ affinity for narrative helped guide his path during his college years as well. At North Carolina Central University he received a BA in Theater Arts. In addition to learning about performance and the technical aspects of theater, while a student at Central, Jones was introduced to the work of pioneering folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston, whose depictions of rural and small-town African American life resonated with his own heritage. He took part in an adaptation of Hurston’s Of Mules and Men for the stage, which he and his fellow students performed at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 1991. In the years immediately following college, Jones toured the United States and Europe with theater productions and as a lighting designer for a hip hop group.
After moving back home to Laurinburg, he worked as a substitute teacher, and then accepted a position as a teacher assistant. One day a colleague, knowing that Jones had a degree in theater, suggested that he tell a story to the children. His storytelling career began that day. Telling stories in the classroom led to performances at churches and festivals, at Laurinburg’s Storytelling and Arts Center of the Southeast, and many other venues and events.
Jones draws inspiration for his storytelling from many sources. He tells children and adults about the lives of important historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, and promotes literacy and a love of reading by sharing stories from a wide variety of books. He continues to be inspired by the work of Zora Neale Hurston, and enjoys introducing audiences to her rich body of work. “I think she’s right here on my shoulder when I step out,” he says. “I pay a lot of homage to her, because I was honored and privileged to study her work.”
Tyris Jones’ career as a storyteller illustrates an important trend in the traditional arts of North Carolina: artists who have returned to their hometowns, and their regional traditions, after spending years living away. In many cases, such artists are retirees who have spent their careers in the Northeast or elsewhere, and after retiring home have become reengaged with the traditions of their families and native communities. Younger artists like Jones also follow this pattern when they choose to build their lives and careers back in their hometowns. He explains,
. . . being back home has helped me reconnect with the past, and the future as well, because I’m able to reflect on where I grew up, family members who have passed on, or people who were in my life . . . While they weaved their tales, I was actually being groomed to weave my own tales. So being back here has helped me to actually reflect on the past, and move in the future as well. It’s been very, very wonderful.
Tyris Jones is available for programming. Please contact:
Manager: Lorrain Harrell, (919) 358-3680
Tyris Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Bryan is a folklorist who lives in Durham, North Carolina.