Women Playwrights Ascendant at KC Rep

Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” Heads Up a Spring Season Stocked with Works by Women

Paula Vogel, the playwright who created “Indecent,” saw her production performed at KC Rep from Jan. 18 to Feb. 10. (photo by Laurie Sturdevant)

In 2010 an arts journalist at the “Denver Post” interviewed theater experts and compiled a list of the 10 most important American plays of the 20th century. The playwrights included all the usual suspects: Arthur Miller (two of his plays were on the list), Tony Kushner, Tennessee Williams (also represented twice), Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder and August Wilson.

Only one woman was recognized: Lorraine Hansberry, whose “A Raisin in the Sun,” a humanistic drama about a black family trying to move into a white neighborhood in the 1950s, is rightly considered a classic.

The 21st century is shaping up quite differently. Kansas City Repertory Theatre opened the second half of its 2018-19 season with a production of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” directed by its former artistic director Eric Rosen in a joint production with the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore Center Stage. In 2017 “Indecent” marked, at last, Vogel’s Broadway debut after decades as a successful playwright.

Vogel’s work until this year had pretty much been in the purview of the Unicorn Theatre, which staged her Pulitzer-Prize winning “How I Learned to Drive,” in 1998. The Unicorn also produced Vogel’s “Hot ’n’ Throbbing,” “The Minneola Twins” and “The Baltimore Waltz.” And Kansas City Actors Theatre in 2008 staged her “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief.”

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh is the creator of “School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play,” which runs at the Rep through March 17. (courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre)

But “Indecent,” a play with music (co-created by Rebecca Taichman), marked the Rep’s first production of a Vogel work.

The same year the “Denver Post” published its “most important plays” list, Vogel ventured down to Independence, Kansas, to collect the prestigious award bestowed each year on a living playwright at the William Inge Theatre Festival.

At the time, Vogel said progress was tangible but that more work was yet to be done. She said one of the most common attitudes she encountered in her younger years was: Men are supposed to be playwrights, women are actresses.

“I know we’ve got a struggle,” she said. “On the other hand, there are places seeking vibrant new plays by women. God bless the Unicorn Theatre.”

As it turns out, women playwrights are ascendant. Martyna Majok claimed the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for “Cost of Living;” Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer for “Sweat” the preceding year. And every play in the second half of the Rep’s 2018-19 season is by a woman.

Running through March 17 is Broadway actress and playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play,” followed by Kate Hamill’s adaptation of the Jane Austen classic “Pride and Prejudice” (March 22 through April 14).

Kansas City-based playwright Vanessa Severo’s much-anticipated “Frida: A Self Portrait,” opens at the Rep on April 19. (courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre)

The season concludes with actress/playwright Vanessa Severo’s “Frida: A Self Portrait,” based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which runs in repertory with Dipika Guha’s “Unreliable” beginning April 19. Guha is a native of Calcutta who (according to her official bio) was raised in the United Kingdom, Russia and India. Her three-character play has been described as a dark comedy and mystery involving a female lawyer, her mother and a terrorism suspect. She has also written for television.

This will be theatergoers’ second chance to see Severo’s “Frida,” which she performed as a work in progress at the Living Room in 2014. Viewers at the time were impressed. “She’s more than an actor and more than a playwright,” this critic wrote at the time. “She’s a conceptual theater artist who, rather like Kahlo, is not satisfied with the conventional. This show is a wild, unpredictable ride.”

In January, the website TheaterMania included Bioh’s “School Girls” on a list of plays that deserve to be on Broadway. Bioh applies American movie tropes to her comedy about a girls’ boarding school in Ghana, the homeland of Bioh’s parents. “Bioh has wrought a compact but resonant study of internalized racism and networks of female resistance,” wrote New York critic David Cote. “She’s also written a sleek, cutting comedy with fine roles for young actresses.”

And Hamill’s take on “Pride and Prejudice” will be anything but a Masterpiece Theatre stuffed-shirt adaptation. Hamill reportedly brings a wacky sense of humor to her literary adaptations, including “Vanity Fair” and “Sense and Sensibility.” The playwright, wrote the “New York Times,” “has a gift for condensing three-volume novels into galloping two-act plays.”

So did the Rep program these works by design or happenstance? Maybe a little of both.

Rosen, who had a hand in shaping the season before his departure as the Rep’s artistic director, said programming so many works by female dramatists was less a conscious choice than a reflection of the Rep’s commitment to diversity. Diversity, he said, is more than a goal. He called it “the proper effect of greatness.”

“In my decade at KC Rep, I was guided by a desire to make the theater truly great, and curating seasons that achieve diversity in its best sense is what I’m most proud of,” he said. “These plays aren’t great because they’re by a diverse group of women. They are great because these writers are great. Collected together they represent what I love most about KC Rep as a national institution.”

For more information on Kansas City Rep’s season, visit www.kcrep.org or call the box office at 816.235.2700.

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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