Plays With a Punch: A Theater Critic’s Wish list for KC

I was heartened in February when the ever-feisty Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre undertook a drama that by rights should have been staged in Kansas City years ago — August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.”

(August) Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II,” two plays set a generation apart but with interconnected characters…are rich, dark, multi-faceted dramas that create convincing worlds to be inhabited by good actors and shared by willing audiences.

“Gem” was the second-to-last play Wilson wrote in his historic 10-drama cycle depicting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. I would argue that it’s his best, and theatergoers should be thankful that a local theater company got it together to produce this rich, challenging work. The question is: Why the long wait? First staged in Chicago, in 2003, “Gem of the Ocean” ran on Broadway in 2004 and 2005. Since then it has been produced at regional theaters around the country.

For a play of this magnitude, you would naturally look to Kansas City Repertory Theatre as the logical venue for a major Wilson play. But it was not to be. Next season the Rep plans to stage Wilson’s “Fences,” which it first produced in the early ’90s. Now that there is a high-profile movie version, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and for which actress Viola Davis claimed an Oscar, one suspects that the marketing for a local production of “Fences” would be less challenging than a Wilson play viewers are unfamiliar with.

Indeed, the Rep and the MET are the only local companies that have staged Wilson plays — with the exception of the short-lived Metropolitan Ebony Theatre in the early ’90s. Prior to “Gem,” MET audiences have seen “The Piano Lesson” and “Jitney.” At the Rep, theatergoers have seen, in addition to “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Jitney,” “Two Trains Running” and “Radio Golf.”

Still to be seen on a local stage are Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II,” two plays set a generation apart but with interconnected characters. Both are rich, dark, multi-faceted dramas that create convincing worlds to be inhabited by good actors and shared by willing audiences. In “King Hedley,” Wilson seemed to aim for Greek tragedy and in so doing created a dark work that poses major challenges to theater artists. But it’s a play worth seeing, as is “Seven Guitars.” I don’t particularly care which theater does them. But they need to be seen here.

Other plays I’d like to see local theater artists tackle:

  • “The Glory of Living” by Rebecca Gillman. To date only one of the Chicago-based writer’s plays has been seen here — “Spinning Into Butter,” a drama about perceptions of racism and political correctness at a New England college. The Unicorn staged it in 2002. It’s a worthwhile play but not Gillman’s best. In “The Glory of Living” we brush up against a poor white subculture as a young man and woman travel the country, luring young women to their deaths. The play is stark and powerful and would be natural for The Living Room, the Unicorn or the MET. Another Gillman play, “Boy Gets Girl,” is a sobering drama about sexual stalking. Like “The Glory of Living,” it has yet to be staged by a professional theater in Kansas City.
  • “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster. Webster was 16 years younger than William Shakespeare but in his two great tragedies, “Duchess” and “The White Devil,” he created rich, vividly written tales of revenge that rival some of the Bard’s strongest work. Revivals of “Duchess” are not uncommon in London and New York, but it’s rarely staged elsewhere. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival won’t produce it because the festival’s charter requires it to stage Shakespeare and only Shakespeare. But as Peter Altman, former artistic director of Kansas City Rep, once told me, if the choice is between “Duchess” and one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, why not do the Webster? The drama is a searing portrait of moral corruption in both the state and the church and judges the world to be, as one dying character observes, “but a dog-kennel.” Sounds like a play for our times.
  • “Stuff Happens” by David Hare. You have to love the Brits, because they write plays no American would ever think of. The title is taken from a Donald Rumsfeld quote in response to reports of widespread looting in Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Hare’s look at relatively recent history is a fascinating depiction of international politics during the run-up to the war. Onstage we find George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and others. It’s a big cast. As one critic observed of the 2004 London production: “If for no other reason than its ability to fillet a complex sequence of headlines into a narrative spanning three sustained, surprisingly ideologically even-handed hours, ‘Stuff Happens’ transmits an electricity through the auditorium of something truly happening: Not in years have I been so conscious of an audience conspicuously leaning forward, so as not to miss any of the ‘stuff.’”
  • “King Charles III” by Mike Bartlett. Local audiences saw “Cock,” Bartlett’s intense — and intensely imaginative — four-character relationship drama in 2015. His approach to playwriting is clearly audacious and that’s the right word to describe “King Charles.” Bartlett is another of those Brits whose writing reflects wildly ambitious artistic goals. In this play he peers into the future, after Prince Charles finally ascends to the throne, and imagines what would happen if the king took an active interest in politics and chose to influence policy. His choice to write in iambic pentameter lends the play a Shakespearean authority. So does the appearance of Princess Diana as a ghost. KC Rep has the resources to do it justice.
  • “Sex” by Mae West. West’s barrier-smashing play, though universally reviled by critics, was a huge Broadway hit in 1926 and 1927. It also earned West a brief stint behind bars for violating New York “obscenity” statutes. She recognized that serving time could make her a star and she flamboyantly traveled to jail in a limo and silk underwear. West, writing under the pseudonym Jane Mast, remade an existing vaudeville one-act, “Following the Fleet,” but turned it on its head — transforming a story about a young hooker’s doom to one about a hooker who makes good as an independent woman. West created a screen image for herself, the platinum-blonde vamp, but she is regarded as a liberated woman who controlled her career. A critic wrote of a 2007 revival in San Francisco: “The script holds up surprisingly well given that it isn’t very good.” But the play’s historical and social significance trumps literary quality. Late Night Theatre, are you paying attention?
  • “Indians” by Arthur Kopit. Why Kopit’s 1968 meta-theatrical meditation on American history, including genocide, and showbiz myth-making in the 19th century isn’t revived more often is a mystery to me. It would certainly be timely now, in light of the Native American protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The play depicts Buffalo Bill, as a celebrity haunted by the ghosts of Indians destroyed by western expansion, who tours in a stage play with Wild Bill Hickok and Ned Buntline glorifying his Indian-fighting exploits. It’s a tragic tale told with acerbic humor. I can easily picture it at the MET.
  • “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show” by Carlyle Brown. The Coterie, a young audiences theater, staged a version of this fascinating, disturbing play in the ’90s. The show was directed by filmmaker Kevin Willmott and featured a strong cast. I suspect the Coterie compressed the material to fit its standard format (more-or-less), of 60 minutes. But this material needs to be seen by an adult audience. Brown brings unsettling themes to the stage as he creates a tense, pressure-cooker drama that deals with racial stereotypes, theatrical imagery and American racism.

Above: Shawna Pena-Downing(left) played Black Mary with Sherri Roulette-Mosley as the mythic Aunt Ester in the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s spring production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” a play richly deserving to be seen in KC, as are other plays in Wilson’s historic 10-drama cycle. Photo by Bob Paisley

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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