Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
Laurinburg, Scotland County, NC
Skills: Demonstrating Artist, Public Presentations
In the fourth grade, Scotland County actor and storyteller Tyris Jones realized two things: that he loved to read, and that he was a natural teacher. “We would literally get in those big blue dumpsters, and go through there and dumpster-dive all the library books,” he recalls. “We would come and put [the books] in the housing projects, on my grandmother’s picnic table, and sit there and teach ourselves.”
Though he struggled in school, Jones gravitated at an early age toward the stage. “Once I did discover that I loved reading,” he says, “for some reason I would always raise my hand to be one of the characters in the school play.” Jones went on to study theater at North Carolina Central University in Durham, where he received his B.A. in Theater Arts. His degree took him to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he was trained in “lighting design and working on productions.” In turn, that opportunity took him across Europe to work on plays and hip-hop group performances.
When Jones settled again in the U.S., he began working as a teaching assistant in local schools. “The teacher saw that I had a theater degree, and she was the one who wanted someone to do a story one day in the classroom,” Jones remembers. To connect his students with literature and Black history, Jones “took one of [Zora Neale Hurston’s] books, Mules and Men, and adapted that into a play, Of Mules and Men,” he explains. “And we went on to perform that at the John F. Kennedy Center in 1991.”
Jones’s work has become his vehicle for reaching young people and teaching them about local history. When somebody from the Storytelling Center attended Jones’s performance of a piece about Harriet Tubman, she suggested that he try storytelling. He has since told his stories and led classes in public libraries, schools, and churches. By drawing on his childhood and the rich history of Scotland County, Jones weaves tales that resonate with kids, many of whose backgrounds are similar to his. “I told you about living in the housing projects, and dumpster-diving and stuff?” he asks. “I tell kids they have the ability to use their creative imagination, where they can just make this story their own stories.”