Shon Ruffin Stars in Gender-Bending “Purple Reign: Party Like It’s 1499.”
And so it is that Late Night Theatre again brings its caustic sensibility to the late musical pop icon known as Prince.
The new show, “Purple Reign: Party Like It’s 1499,” continues a tradition established in the 1990s, when actor/director/writer Ron Megee and a band of like-minded theater outlaws started doing original material that took gleeful broadsides at pop culture and gender assumptions.
Simply put, Late Night continues to fill a niche of its own making with gender-bending shows that both celebrate and mock American pop culture. Through the years, audiences have seen all-male productions of “Valley of the Dolls,” an all-female riff on “Bonanza” and many other spoofs or “tributes,” from “The Birds” by Hitchcock and “Dangerous Liaisons” to summer-camp slasher movies and sci-fi space operas.
Ad libs and unreliable props are all part of the Late Night experience. The basic approach might be summed up this way: To hell with aesthetics, posterity be damned — let’s make theater for the here and now.
But first a bit of history: In 2005 the company made an indelible impression with a production called “The Show Formerly Known As Purple Rain,” a send-up of the Prince movie, with an all-female cast. Written by David Wayne Reed and directed by Kara Armstrong, the crazed musical upended the inherent misogyny of Prince’s celebration of women as always-available slut-artists and showcased some powerhouse performances, especially Jessalyn Kincaid as Prince and Kimmie Queen as Morris Day.
Eventually the company couldn’t keep up with expenses at its little theater space on Grand Boulevard and shut down. Megee and other Late Night alumni continued to work in theater and pursued creative opportunities. But for Late Night to end with a whimper never felt right to anybody — neither its founders nor its fans.
But a few years ago, Jessica Dressler, well-known for her performances as Dirty Dorothy (a foul-mouthed version of the adolescent protagonist of “The Wizard of Oz”) and designer and sometimes actor Chadwick Brooks approached Megee about reviving Late Night.
“I will actually take credit for convincing Ron to bring Late Night back,” Dressler said.
Dressler and Brooks approached Michael Burns, the legendary owner of Missy B’s, the iconic 39th Street watering hole considered the “premier gay bar in Kansas City,” to give Late Night a home. Missy B’s was already known for drag shows and karaoke, and Late Night seemed like a natural fit. Burns agreed and in 2014 Late Night rose from the ashes with “Golden Girls Gone Wild!” The show was written and directed by Megee, who starred along with Brooks, Jon Cupit, Gary Campbell and Martin Buchanan.
The new venue also inspired a significant change in the Late Night format. At Missie B’s, each performance includes a slot for a “guest star” — an actor, a drag queen, a comedian, etc. — who interjects him or herself into the show. The regular cast members never know quite what the guest star will do, so they play along with ad libs.
“A Proper Drag Queen”
Which brings us to the present: “Purple Reign: Party Like It’s 1499,” a brand-new show written and produced by Dressler. She described it as “a wild fairytale told through the music of Prince. If the Renfest, Disney and ‘Game of Thrones’ had a baby with Prince, it would be this show.”
Shon Ruffin is set to play Prince, with Stephonne Singleton as Apollonia, Meredith Wolfe as Merlin Day and Shannon Michalski, Janette Noriega and Dressler as “everyone else.”
Ruffin, 31, a dynamite vocalist who has performed for the Coterie, the Unicorn, Kansas City Black Rep and the Living Room, among others, is playing her first lead for Late Night.
As she tells it, her association with Late Night began about five years ago when her sister invited her to go see a drag show at Missie B’s. She had just earned a theater degree from Kansas State University and was wrestling with post-graduation blues.
“My sister said, ‘Let’s go see a drag show,’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve never gone to those, I don’t want to go to one.’”
But her sister prevailed and before long Ruffin found herself “having a ball.” Hosting was Dressler as Dirty Dorothy. She began singing a song — Ruffin remembers it as Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” while Dressler thinks it might have been Lady Gaga’s “You and I” — and Ruffin spontaneously joined in. Her penetrating voice was so commanding that it got Dressler’s attention.
“She comes over with the mic and hands it to me and said, ‘Here, you finish it,’” Ruffin said. “Then she asked the audience, ‘Do you want to see this girl sing a song?’”
That’s how Ruffin met Megee and Missy Koonce, another Late Night veteran who a few years later would direct her in Forrest Attaway and Eric Wesley Redding’s “Chainsaw: The Musical.” Through Late Night she also met Damron Russel Armstrong, founder of Kansas City Black Repertory Theatre, who tapped her for his inaugural concert performance of “Dreamgirls.”
But Ruffin, who by her count has guest-starred in six Late Night shows, considers the little theater space with 100 seats her home.
“I’m very happy to do a show here because the first time I performed in Kansas City was on that stage at Missie B’s,” Ruffin said from Chicago, where she recently relocated.
Ruffin added that appearing in previous Late Night shows loosened her up considerably.
“I’d never been in drag,” she said. “I perform in a very diva-esque way.”
But Dressler has been one of her biggest supporters.
“She taught me a lot about how to work a crowd and timing,” Ruffin said. “That was really scary. Even when I started singing at Missie B’s I would just stay in one spot on stage and wear one outfit and I wouldn’t do anything else. Flash forward to five years later. I’m wearing glittering outfits and working all around the room, working the crowd.”
Dressler agreed that early on, Ruffin tended to stay in one spot and basically sing without moving.
“Then she added in costumes and wigs . . . and then she was a proper drag queen,” Dressler said. “She just didn’t happen to be a boy.”
For Ruffin, part of the thrill is the chance to sing the music of Prince.
“I remember not knowing about him that much,” she said. “My mom was a huge Prince fan. I just thought he was a strange human being. But I didn’t know much about him and I didn’t know how talented he was. He could play like 20 instruments.”
Megee, who designed the sets for “Purple Reign,” looks back on the Late Night journey as an epic of hard work and crazed inspiration. Megee and his collaborators had begun doing shows at various venues in the early ’90s, but “The Birds” was the first production under the Late Night Theatre banner when it opened at Westport Coffee House in 1997.
The staff at Missie B’s deserves much of the credit for Late Night’s revival, Megee said. They built a wall separating the performance space from the rest of the bar, which allowed seating for 100 and a proper entrance for the audience.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Everything that was weighing our company down at the old space, such as astronomical rents, electricity, heating and air-conditioning, ASCAP (music licensing fees) is now absorbed by Missie B’s. We never have to struggle to pay our actors and designers and tech people . . . We love it. We love that bar.”
Indeed, Missie B’s support is crucial. It allows Late Night to continue occupying a unique place in local theater.
“This is real bar theater,” Megee said. “And there aren’t many bar theaters in the country.”
“Purple Reign: Party Like It’s 1499” runs Nov. 30 – Dec. 22 at Missie B’s, 805 W 39th St. For ticket information, www.latenighttheatre.com.
Above: Dynamite vocalist Shon Ruffin plays Prince in Late Night Theatre’s Nov. 30 – Dec. 22 production of “Purple Reign.” (photo by Kenny Johnson)