Tyris Jones taps into the art of storytelling

By Kerria Weaver


Tyris Jones, 55, has always dreamed of his name being in lights on Broadway and knows one day he is going to win an Oscar. 

In his community, Jones is best known as a storyteller and enjoys sharing his craft with others.

The Border Belt Independent spoke with Jones about storytelling and how he brings awareness to this uncommon art form.

Q. What was your journey into your career?

I was born and raised here in Laurinburg. In 1987 I graduated from Scotland High School and I went to North Carolina Central University to study theater. I received my degree in the summer of 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in art. After graduating I did a two-year internship through the African American Initiative Program at a theater called Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J. For the internship, I was in the production field focusing on lights. I started in New Brunswick from about 1994-1999. The third year I loved being in the professional theater aspect and didn’t want to come back home to Laurinburg. I ended up staying there and was a custodian for the theater for a year. Ironically, after that third year I was hired as a master electrician. I laugh about that because I went from an internship to cleaning toilets to a master electrician. I stayed there until 1999, and in that year, Crossroads Theatre Company became the first and only African American theater company to receive a Tony award for outstanding regional theater. After 1999, I ended up coming back to Laurinburg.

Tyris Jones, a Scotland County storyteller, explains his passion for the art form. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Q. When did you become interested in acting and storytelling?

As a little boy, I was the one who could run barefoot on the street on the hot pavement, throw footballs with my cousins, play hopscotch with the girls, but yet I ended up on the front porch with adults listening to everything. I was being groomed as a storyteller by hearing the community news. My grandmother lived in Washington Park. That’s where I say I grew up, in the projects. There was a man who could not speak and only made this “abah” sound. I recall this being the first story I was told. He got hit by a car in front of a schoolhouse and they ended up putting a crosswalk there. Whenever you saw him coming, that was his story. He told it by pointing in the direction of the school. My godmother literally interpreted what he was saying because she knew what had happened. He would also make marks in the dirt, drawing four tally marks with a slash, letting us know how many stitches he got. 

In 1990, Dr. Randolph Umberger, who wrote Strike at the Wind, was my professor. He ended up doing a play called Of Mules and Men, an adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston’s book Mules and Men, and he gathered actors from the theater department and non actors. There were 11 of us all together. We auditioned for the play and it was based on storytelling. Umberger gave us a story and we had a few minutes to read it. Then we would have to go on stage and tell this story. That was our audition piece, and that’s how I became tapped into storytelling, through Zora Neale Hurston.

Q. What kind of events do you perform? Do you perform only in North Carolina or anywhere?

I have been up and down the east coast of North Carolina. I have been to Virginia, down to Atlanta, and I’ve been to Jonesboro, Tenn., where they have the International Storytelling Festival. In 2009, I performed there and that’s like the Super Bowl in the storytelling world. If you’re invited, you’ve arrived.

I met a woman by the name of Brenda Gilbert and they had an idea about storytelling. I didn’t know storytelling was a profession. They ended up bringing a storytelling festival to Scotland County and I was a part of the first one. I was an amateur storyteller. I’ve always wanted to be the one with my name in lights and Broadway, and I do know I’m going to get an Oscar one day.

One of Jones’ signature items is a walking stick that he has decorated in traditional dashiki cloths from Ghana. He said the stick is an extension of his artistry. Photo by Ben Rappaport

I’ve also performed in schools, churches, and I’ve even done a wedding. I haven’t done a funeral but I believe I will one day; it might be my own.

Q. Do you have a specific target audience that you prefer to perform for? 

I perform for everybody. Kids give me a different reaction and adults give me a different reaction, and I get a ride off both of them. The kids are more or less like you can hear a pin drop and then you get that “wow” or “aha” moment. But the adults laugh and ride with you because they can relate.

One favorite moment I have is from when I went to an alternative school. The principal asked me, “What did you do?” I told him “I was just being myself.”

Those students were sitting on every word, on the edge of their seats. The ones that we cast to the side or put a label on, those are the ones I really love performing for.

Q. Do you have a favorite performance/story you like to perform?

After the tour in 2007, Wanda Dockery, who was an excellent second grade school teacher at I. Ellis Johnson Elementary School,I  found out that I had a theater degree because I was a substitute at that time. She asked me if I would tell a story to her second grade class. I said “okay” without knowing what I was going to do, but for some reason Harriet Tubman came in my spirit. I Googled a few things about her and I told a two-minute story. That story is my signature piece and it is now about an hour long. The story has been growing ever since.

I was invited to the John Blue House during Heritage Day and I told that story. It’s a slave story called Journey to Freedom. I would tell the story in the John Blue House in the kitchen. In the story, I used the N-word I don’t know many times, but I reckoned it was too much because the people giving the tours ended up closing the kitchen door, especially when kids were around. After that year, I ended up being in one of the cabins instead.

Q. Is there a particular thing or source of inspiration that helps with coming up with performance/story ideas?

I didn’t read well in the fourth grade and my mother held me back. I was mad back then, but I know now it was for a reason. I use this in my storytelling, letting kids know I was held back and that I wasn’t a good reader. A lot of my stories come from my real life, as well as discarded library books. I also write my own stories.

Tyris Jones, a Laurinburg native, considers himself a ‘jack of all trades, and master of none.’ He has experience in storytelling, lighting production, dance, gardening and more. Photo by Ben Rappaport

My mother has always been my support and I must pay respect to her. I truly believe she aided in me being the artist I am today. She has and still does have a beautiful soprano voice. I remember as a little boy her singing “Summertime” from the Broadway play “Porgy and Bess,” and for some reason, I find myself humming or singing that song from time to time to this day. When I chose theater for college, her choice for me was to be  a teacher or in the education field. She always said, “You need something to fall back on pretty much a ram in the bush,” not knowing it was already planned by the Omnipotent that storytelling was my ram in the bush. 

A retired teacher who has taught in Scotland County saw me and said, “I read somewhere that you were an educator.” They asked where I taught, to which I replied, “I worked at I Ellis Johnson as a teacher assistant for three years.” Then it dawned on me, as a storyteller I am an educator. That made me feel proud.

Q. Have you met any celebrities/notable people?

In September or October I’m sitting on the couch watching BET and Common was on TV and he was talking about going on tour. What was funny about it was that two days later, my phone rang and it was my supervisor from Crossroads. He told me he had a proposition for me and I was like “okay.” He asked me if I could handle a tour and I told him “yeah.” That’s when he told me Common was getting ready to go on tour and was looking for a lighting designer and he thought I could handle it. I lie to you not, within three weeks I was headed to New York City and I became Common’s lighting designer for the “Like Water for Chocolate” tour. I didn’t know Common from a can of paint. I’m not a big hip-hop artist person – that wasn’t one of my things. So to get that opportunity, I was like “Can I do it?” and I did. It was very interesting.

Ever since Tyris Jones was in third grade, he’s kept the same copy of ‘Folk Stories’ with him. He uses the stories to educate young people. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Since I studied lighting in college and by being in the production part at Crossroads, I learned a great deal, so I knew what to do when it was time to go on the road. Every venue was different. One venue we went to was a club with a stage and front porch and I had maybe six lights. In another venue we had like 200 lights, so it varied from each venue. I also went on tour with David E. Talbert, a playwright, who did a play called “Love Makes Things Happen.” The play starred Dawn Robinson from En Vogue, Coko from SWV, Joe Torry, and Kevon Edmonds

Q. What do you hope people will gain from seeing/hearing your performances and stories?

I want people to know every story has a moral or a lesson. If they understand that without me telling them or they get the “aha” moment of “I got it,” then we’re good.

I realized storytelling is a lost art form. This is something that needs to keep going. I can storytell in front of preschoolers all the way up to people who are 102 years old and up. Schools don’t tap into the arts like they used to when I was coming up. Back then that was the meat. I’m certainly not knocking STEM, but there are still real, live artists out there. Children have it in them to do it but they don’t get to tap into it. I try to introduce this art to them. I give them theater discipline, which helps with your public speaking and confidence.

Right now, I host a theater camp. I will be doing a theater camp July 15-25 from 10:30 a.m. -1:30 p.m. and the ages are from 6 to 17 at the Storytelling and Art  Theater in Laurinburg. I started the first theater camp in Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church, which was my home church, in 2005.

At the Scotland County Memorial Library, Tyris Jones frequently performs stories for young people to show the magic of his art, and inspire the next generation of performers. Photo by Ben Rappaport