Kansas City Actors Theatre Redefined

The Company Sets New Goal and Mission in Response to Black Lives Matter Movement

Kansas City Actors Theatre in its 15-year history has performed the works of famous and obscure playwrights alike — from the Americas, Europe (including Britain) and South Africa.

But missing from the respected theater company’s record of productions is a single play by a writer of color.

That, among other reasons, is why KCAT scrapped its previously announced 2020-21 season and went back to the drawing board — and embraced a new commitment to diversity and social justice. Theater artists of color have been invited to join both the board of directors and the artistic committee, which collectively chooses which plays the company will produce moving forward.

As of July, three new members had been announced: Actors Shawna Peña-Downing and Walter Coppage, a founder of the company who left about five years ago, will both serve on the artistic committee. And Nedra Dixon, a veteran actor, director and choreographer, will serve on both the artistic committee and the board of directors.

The changes and new goals at KCAT were outlined in a new mission statement released in June in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Without qualification, Kansas City Actors Theatre can and must do better because (KCAT) has been lousy at diversity of artistic and operational leadership, as well as diversity of programming and on-stage and behind-the-scenes representation during the entirety of its relatively brief history,” the statement read. “No amount of past brainstorming, hand-wringing, failed plans, unimpressive steps forward and mere hope make up for that. The time for OUR change, in the midst of societal change, is NOW.”

The company pledged to add BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to positions throughout the organization. In addition to the board of directors and artistic committee, others would also be invited to serve on development, marketing, governance and finance committees.

In addition, KCAT said it would expand the scope of the plays it offers to include works by BIPOC writers.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said managing director John Rensenhouse, an actor and director. “We’ve often discussed our bias toward the white demographic, and along the way we tried to do certain things to mitigate that.”

Walter Coppage, one of the city’s best-known African American actors, became less directly involved in KCAT after his career got busy about five years ago. But after reading the company’s statement in June, he decided it was time to help KCAT achieve its new goals.

“That was very moving,” Coppage said. “I thought it was very forthcoming and hopeful. And I thought this is an organization I helped found, so why not lend a hand? Now it seems like an appropriate time, especially with what they’re attempting to do.”

Coppage said that just as theaters responded to the #MeToo movement, now they are reassessing artistic goals in light of Black Lives Matter.

Peña-Downing said her invitation to join the artistic committee was a “lovely surprise.”

“I hope to bring a perspective that hasn’t necessarily been seen at KCAT, maybe a younger perspective,” she said. “I’m hoping to gain a little bit and hoping to deliver something they need.”

Dixon said the invitation to join not only the artistic committee, but the board, was unexpected. But she was impressed by the June mission statement.

“It is, I believe, aggressive and needed,” she said. “And they are completely behind putting words into action. All of us are involved in a world of reckoning. Let’s see how we can invoke real change.”

Rensenhouse said the ongoing changes amount to a “wholesale redefining of how our organization works. We’ve always been committed to local talent, and now that includes people of color. We want to be more active in mentoring young people and encouraging them to stay (in Kansas City) by having them involved in our organization. So that means our organization is going to get a bit larger in terms of our artistic committee. It’s always been seven to nine people, but that number’s going to be bigger because now we’re going to have a broader base.”

KCAT, like other Equity theaters, can’t move forward on productions without approval from Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers, once it’s satisfied that COVID safety standards can be met. Rensenhouse hopes that the company can produce three shows starting in January. But certain pandemic realities remain. The City Stage at Union Station, where KCAT normally performs, has 200 seats. Now audiences will have to number between 50 and 75, Rensenhouse said.

“That means we have to do smaller shows that cost less money to produce,” he said. “If we get to do this three-show season, we want to immediately address the issue of never having done a play written by a person of color.”

For more information on Kansas City Actors Theatre, go to www.kcactors.org.

Photos courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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