By Tom Wilbur, Contributing Editor
(This article originally appeared in the November 12th edition of the Salina311 newspaper. Bus Stop opens today at the Salina Community Theatre).
Tyrees Allen and I first met at Roosevelt-Lincoln Junior High School, also known as North Junior High, here in Salina. Through a series of events, Tyrees engaged with Salina educators, friends, and mentors who influenced him towards a life as a professional actor. As recently as two years ago, Tyrees was named "Best Male Actor" for the year—- of all Boston theatre productions.
He has appeared on stages across the country, on television (one of his favorite parts was on Women's Murder Club), in movies, and on Broadway. I was curious to hear his input as he looked back upon his successful career. I wondered how our home—Salina, Kansas— might have been part of his journey. We spoke over coffee at Mokas one morning, and I think you'll find this interview interesting. Tyrees has returned to Salina to direct the upcoming "Bus Stop" production at the Salina Community Theatre, once again bringing his talents back home for us all to enjoy.
Tom: So, my friend, share with us your experiences growing up in Salina and how they influenced you and your career in professional acting?
Tyrees: Well, you know, I've always felt like I'm among the most privileged people I know because I grew up here, especially in the '70s. Salina honestly was a very creative place to be. And I learned the value of doing the thing for the thing itself from the people around me. When I was 14 years old, I started with plays when the community theater was at the old Washington building, which was sort of a pit of hell. My first show ever was "Raisin in the Sun." There were pigeons all over the place, but I remember that first time I walked in that old building, and I was introduced to Charles Kephart, who ultimately became my surrogate father. I sort of knew that I had found my place. It was like walking on Mars. It was so foreign and so magical. And there were all these odd people, you know, working there, people that I'd never seen in my life. And, it's odd because I didn't even know that these people existed. Even though I grew up about a mile from there, but I had no idea what it was.
I arrived there because my English teacher, Marilyn Chlebak, encouraged me one day, saying, you read very well, have you ever thought about being an actor. I didn't know what she was talking about because, I mean, obviously, I'd gone to movies, and I'd watched television. But I didn't equate that with a way of life or a way to make a living or career. I had no idea what that meant. So it was like, somebody opened up the thick bag of pixie dust and threw it on me, and it just changed my life.
But Salina was always, I mean, there were some problems when I was growing up, but I was blessed to have a lot of different kinds of friends. I had friends— kids that lived all over town.
Tom: We got smashed together at North Jr. High. There was a new socio-economic thing that occurred. The process brought kids together with very different backgrounds. And it was interesting. I think that, for the most part, that was a dynamic where we had to learn and adapt to each other very quickly.
Tyrees: It's why I love public schools and private schools— they are a great pathway for finding places to come together. One of my first friends at North Junior High School was a young white girl. Her name was Vicki Appleby. And I remember, I went to her house for lunch one day, and it was the first time I realized that we were poor— that my family was poor. I didn't know it really before that moment. And I think Salina allowed me to be with all kinds of people. I think about it when I'm coming home, and I don't come back with regrets at all. I think life in Salina taught me to be grateful and to accept other people. And I'm not trying to gloss anything up because there were some real serious racial issues. But on the main, I was really like the only black kid doing what I was doing in the way that I was doing it. You know, in terms of the theater and all that.
Tom: In high school, at Salina Central, it seemed to me that you always kind of walked your own walk. And you were a fascinating person to most of us, just as an individual. In the way, you carried yourself and interacted with others and with administrators who just loved to have you visit with them in the office. I know there were times for you where there were difficulties related to racial divisions — is there any way to expand upon what those times were like for you, and whether you feel we've grown from there or not?
Tyrees: Well, I'm afraid that we've all taken a step back in this country on racial matters, but as you know, there were experiences I had with principals in high school and junior high school, and with teachers and administrators, who had no business teaching kids. There were many like that. But let me share, as well, I think that Salina offered a magnificent public school education.
Mr. Nuss was our assistant Principal at Salina Central, and man, what a tough guy he was, but he was a hard guy to everybody. There were others in education whose names I won't mention that were just flat-out racist. And they would never show that to people outside. When I first started having success, I would come back home, and I'd run into some of these people, and I could tell they were surprised I ever amounted to a hill of beans.
Tom: Besides Mr. Nuss, who held you accountable?
Tyrees: My mom held me to lots of standards. But it wasn't just my family. It was my hope that the whole community, especially North Salina, would be proud of me. And Salina people are very proud. Even today, people come up to me and say, you know, I'm praying for you, and I hope things are good. A lot of folks want to know when I'm going to be back on television because I sort of walked away from that, but no, I've always felt supported by the entire Salina community, and I appreciate that.
Tom: How do you define success? And what do you consider to be your greatest personal success?
Tyrees: Well, I think of my family, you know, and people who have become close friends. There are people who think, for instance, that money will make you happy. Mike Tyson once said, "Money doesn't make you happy." I used to have a lot of dough, and I wasn't any happier.
In my career, I would have to say that the work I did on Broadway in Aida was special. I'd say some of the television work I've done has been good. But I think I'm most proud of the work I've done in the theater. I mean, that's what I think of most. And that includes theater work I've done here. I mean, some of my greatest experiences in the theater happened at Marymount College. That's really where I grew up as an actor. That's where I developed a real sense of community. With people like Kevin Wilmott, Mary Murphy, and Jack Willis— under the watch Dr. Dennis Denning, who was not an easy man. He expected us to bring energy and passion to the stage every time.
I love to tell this story. So I was in this very successful Broadway musical, Aida. It was a Tony award winner, and at the time, the number one show on Broadway. And one day, there was a notice put up saying, "Cast meeting tomorrow night— 6:30 PM". And I kind of freaked out because we didn't know what was going on. So we get up to the room, and the producer stands up and says, you know, we can't have people coming late. He was admonishing everyone for arriving late and hanging out, smoking outside, and such. And I mean, just as quickly, he stopped. And he said, "There's only been one person in this cast that has never been late to rehearsal or a single show. And that's Tyrees Allen." And of course, the whole cast looked at me.
Well, that's because I was raised right, and I was schooled to be a professional. I would never walk into a production late. I would never have not had my lines ready. When I was told to have my lunch, I had my lunch. I would have never done those things because that would have been a real problem. And I didn't want to answer to my mentors, Dr. Denning or Charles Kephart.
I remember getting my first meeting with Dr. Denning. I was out of high school and took a year off, which was really stupid. So one day, I was sitting at home, and I get a phone call — a woman calling me saying Dr. Denning understands you're in town and that you're not in school, and he'd like to meet with you. So I put on my Sunday best, which at the time was like clean overalls and a clean shirt. I'll never forget my first impression of him sitting behind a desk. He's the dude. The first thing he said to me was, "well, I hear you and I won't get along". That's what he said. From that moment on, I knew I had to attend Marymount College. He arranged for my school, my scholarship, and all that. I think it's the greatest gift I've ever been given — a simple phone call that changed my entire life. It was such an important thing to me that, in my experiences, these things prepared me to go out into the world.
Tom: Outside of theater, what did you enjoy doing growing up in Salina?
Tyrees: I loved hanging out at favorite places to eat and things like that, and I have great memories of hanging out with friends. I had a great fondness for Sandy's. But that was back when fast food was kind of a new treat. Yeah, a double cheeseburger with a special sauce or something.
Tom: What kind of music did you enjoy as a young man?
Tyrees: Oh God, everything my grandmother listened to blues and jazz and gospel. And so I loved that stuff from the time I was a little boy. In fact, there's a song by Jimmy Witherspoon. But I remember it was someone I didn't know. I didn't know what the hell this guy was singing about. The lyric was, "Some people like to love out in the parlor. Some like the love, and love is lame. But I like to make love in the morning when it's pouring down rain." I'm like seven years old. My uncle said to me, boy, don't listen to that stuff. It's going to make you old before your time. I loved Michael Finnegan, and I enjoy The Black Pumas these days.
Tyrees: Another thing I'm really happy about is seeing downtown Salina coming back. It's looking great. I had a real nice dinner downtown at Barolos the other night.
Tom: So you've carried Salina wherever you go. As you've traveled the acting world, what has that been like?
Tyrees: Well, first of all, people are always shocked when I say I'm from Kansas. And then they suggest Kansas City? I have to share there's more to Kansas than just Kansas City. Salina provided a sense of worth, and lots of support, so when I first moved away from Salina, it was very difficult because of the size of the ponds I was in. I think the reason I was able to sustain challenges was because of what Salina gave me. If you're an actor, or in music, it's a very difficult life— certainly to be able to make a living at it. And I've been lucky because I've been making a living as an actor since the 1980s. Not always a great living, but a living, you know. And if you're not a centered person, you won't survive. Drugs are such a temptation, and you have to really be strong— it's not a game.
Tom: When did you start carrying your trademark Tyrees man purse?
Tyrees: Ha! I'll tell you, I was 14. And I remember one clearly, one day, I had a script, and everything was just stuck in my pockets. And I noticed my sister had an old use leather satchel thing that she didn't use anymore. So I thought I'd start stuffing everything in there. I had no idea that carrying a bag was gonna be that controversial over the course of my life. And so that's the story of when I started carrying a bag, and I have ever since.
Tom: You, your hats and scarves, and that bag certainly help you stand apart. Tell us about returning home and directing "Bus Stop".
Tyrees: Oh, well, you know, "Bus Stop" is one of the great American plays, written by William Inge, from Independence, Kansas. And when Michael Spicer first asked me to do it, I read the script again, and I thought, what can I do with this?
Tom: Was your immediate thought that you would try to contemporize it?
Tyrees: I thought about it, and then on second reading, I realized, oh, I don't need to do that. They are flesh and blood people who are great characters. Yes, we're in this situation for a few hours, but the play speaks to who we are and our relationships. "Bus Stop," as you know, takes place in Kansas, or a place like Kansas. We have a great cast of actors assembled. And I think we're going to be able to tell the story very well. I hope folks will join us by attending the show and supporting live theater in Salina. It opens at the start of January.
Tom: Thanks for your time today. I'll catch up with you soon.