When Eric Rosen blew into town to take the reins of Kansas City Repertory Theatre back in 2006, he was a man on a mission. He wanted to do new and challenging work and essentially create a brand new Rep in the theater-going public’s imagination.
He kept his word, staging new musicals and provocative plays aimed at getting a younger audience into the Rep’s two venues — the Spencer Theatre on the UMKC Campus and Copaken Stage downtown at 13th and Walnut. He even developed a hip-hop musical, “Venice,” which he co-wrote with Matt Sax, that premiered at the Copaken and was later produced at the Public Theater in New York and yielded a cast recording.
In the last few years, one could argue, the Rep has become a little less bold as we see more familiar musicals (this season included “Evita” and “Side By Side By Sondheim”) and certifiable chestnuts (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” “A Raisin in the Sun”). Even so, some of those chestnuts have stood out. The 2013 production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Rosen with an all-local cast, was one of the finest shows of his tenure.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Rosen’s commitment to developing young playwrights and nurturing new work. Nathan Louis Jackson, a native of Kansas City, Kan., is the Rep’s playwright in residence — a gig made possible by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. So far the Rep has staged three of Jackson’s scripts.
In 2015 Marissa Wolf joined the staff as the Rep’s director of new works, a newly created position, specifically to find and develop new playwrights. The job was consistent with her previous role as artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre in San Francisco, where she worked with young playwrights and staged world premieres.
Wolf has already made a difference. Last year audiences saw the first edition of the Rep’s New Works Festival with spring productions of Rinne Groff’s “Fire in Dreamland” and Rosen’s own “Lot’s Wife.” The shows ran in repertory but the festival also included readings of three new plays: Christina Anderson’s “Man in Love,” Larissa FastHorse’s “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” and Michelle T. Johnson’s “Rights of Passage.”
This year the plays by Anderson and FastHorse will receive full productions. The festival also includes a third new work, “Antony and Cleopatra” by Christopher Chen, which will be staged by UMKC Theatre in partnership with the Rep. Chen is one of 36 playwrights commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to create “translations” of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.
Rosen said the goal is simple: “Placing the playwright at the center of these enterprises was the founding vision of the regional theater movement . . . and to advance the art form. And the writer is the center of the theater as much as the director is the center of the film world. I think writers bring out audiences . . . (by) working on new plays and speaking most immediately about pressing issues in our world. It’s why theater is the foundation of democracy.”
“Man in Love”
Anderson, a native of KCK, who began writing plays when she was just a kid, has established herself as playwright with serious credentials. Locally her work has been staged by the Coterie and at the Unicorn but has also been seen nationwide. She has received productions or readings at Crowded Fire and ACT in San Francisco, the Public Theater in New York and the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, among others.
“Man in Love” will be Anderson’s first local production since the Unicorn staged “Black Top Sky” in 2013.
“Man in Love” is set during the Great Depression, when a killer is on the loose in a city’s black community. The style, according to Wolf, will incorporate puppetry and borrow inspiration from silent cinema.
“This is her serial killer play,” Wolf said. “It’s set in the 1930s in a segregated city that is unnamed and it’s deeply resonant. It’s looking at the tensions and anxieties boiling over in that city and the ways in which the violence sort of flies under the radar in the black section of town.”
“Man in Love” has received several readings around the county as well as a “developmental production” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2011.
The play grew from Anderson’s exploration of certain African-American stereotypes, Wolf said.
“She was writing about a black serial killer because she was doing some research on this cultural myth that black men couldn’t be serial killers because they only committed murder out of passion. Her writing has a very honest heartbeat but it’s slightly heightened. It’s not at all the world of Chekhov or Shaw or a lot of contemporary writers.”
Following a 2016 reading in Brooklyn, Anderson was quoted in a Q&A session: “I knew I didn’t want to do a whodunit. I was more interested in psychology. I read this essay . . . which says there were black serial killers, but they were never found out because the women they were killing were black and the police didn’t care; and police had stereotypes that black men weren’t smart or patient enough to wait, to establish patterns of killing. They thought black men killed out of passion or rage only.”
“What Would Crazy Horse Do?”
In contrast, Wolf said, “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” is more realistic. But the play by Larissa FastHorse, a Native American who identifies as Sioux, is also rooted in questions of race and ethnic identity.
The play is based on an obscure but bizarre historical event.
“I was home in South Dakota at the Cultural Heritage Center . . . when my mother pointed out this little flyer in the back of a case that none of us had ever noticed,” FastHorse said by email. “It was for a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan in 1926 on the South Dakota/Iowa border. There were all kinds of events . . . but the culminating event was a KKK sponsored powwow with ‘authentic Indians’ dancing as entertainment. It was an impressive event that was going to be attended by the hugely popular national leader of the KKK, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans. My mind was blown. Who danced in a powwow for the Klan?”
Her fictional play depicts the first female leader of the modern Klan, who seeks a “gentler” image for the notorious organization and approaches the two last remaining members of a nearly extinct tribe to participate in an event similar to the one in 1926. Wolf said the plot covers 24 hours.
“There’s a beautiful naturalism to the style which sort of grounds the insane premise,” Wolf said.
Chen’s version of “Antony and Cleopatra” will receive its first full production at the festival. He was one of 36 dramatists selected by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write modern-language versions of Shakespeare’s histories, tragedies and comedies. (Anderson, by the way, is also part of the project; she is adapting “The Comedy of Errors.”)
“In translating Shakespeare’s language into a more modern idiom . . . participants are asked only that they refrain from cutting or editing scenes, injecting personal political bias, or altering setting, time period and historical references,” “American Theatre” magazine reported in 2015.
“When you look at the lineup of playwrights they hired, it’s an incredible body of writers,” Wolf said. She has worked with Chen previously in San Francisco, where he is based.
“He’s always thinking about the tide of global politics and the inner psyche and the subconscious,” she said.
The good news for these playwrights is that we will get to see actual productions of material on which they’ve labored for years. In the theater world there’s a phenomenon called “development hell” in which plays can receive many readings and numerous workshops but never a fully realized, professional production.
“Everyone has good intentions but theaters often want the bragging rights . . . but don’t necessarily feel willing to commit to a production,” Wolf said. “But until you have a production, it can’t really live.”
Rosen put it this way: “I think it’s a huge problem. As a playwright myself I’ve experienced it firsthand.”
That’s why the New Works Festival is underpinned by a concrete goal: To get the plays on a stage in front of an audience.
“These playwrights have a year and a half to work on it and have workshops, but they are assured of the production at the end of the process.” o
“Man in Love” and “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” will run in repertory April 28 through May 28 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. “Antony and Cleopatra” runs May 5 – 14 at the Spencer Theatre in the Olson Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus. For more information, 816-234-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.