KC Black Rep Prepares to Launch Season with a Virtual Show

Damron Russell Armstrong (photo by Jim Barcus)

It should come as no surprise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City will kick off its fifth season with a virtual performance. 

Damron Russel Armstrong, founder and artistic director, explained that initial performance of “Blood at the Root” by Dominique Morisseau, will be performed by actors performing before computer cams. 

“It is totally virtual,” Armstrong said. “So the actors are in their respective homes. Currently we’re rehearsing on Zoom but in performance we’re using a platform called StreamYard . . .It will be a virtual format so it will look like what people are used to with Zoom. But this StreamYard is more compatible for our needs. It’s more condensed than Zoom (and) it puts more stage management control in your hand. But this will not be edited, just a live performance of the show.”

The show will be performed “live” on three consecutive nights — Nov. 5, 6 and7 — and be available for streaming after that.

The play is based on the Jena Six, the collective name given to six African-American high school students in Louisiana who were charged in the beating of a white student following a period of racial tension that included the hanging of nooses from a tree near the school. Their defenders argued that their sentences were excessive and driven by racism. 

The title is taken from a line in the Billie Holiday protest song, “Strange Fruit.” Morisseau’s play has been performed frequently across the country. One critic praised the Washington DC production and the playwright for “presenting issues with clarity, spot-on precision and heart . . .She sets up bewitching questions about who we are, our choices, unspoken seething anger and shows the devastation when friends refuse to be outraged by injustice, discounting flagrant displays of racism and threats as harmless ‘pranks.’”

The cast is made up of high-school actors from the Paseo and Ruskin — part of the theater company’s Rep in Schools Empowerment program — as well as two college actors from University of Central Missouri and Kansas State and one pro, Martin Buchanan.

The rest of the season continues in 2021 and consists of four shows which, Armstrong said, may be performed live — but could just easily become virtual productions. 

They include “Texas in Paris,” a play with music, slated for January; “Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu, described as being inspired by the Trayvon Martin shooting and modeled on “Waiting For Godot,” in March and April; “Memories of the Game” by Kristy Thomas, depicting a Black middle-class family whose patriarch is struggling with dementia, in June; and “Passing Strange,” the Broadway rock musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. 

Armstrong said that he, like other artistic directors, was in uncharted waters because of COVID-19.

“This is a whole new world for us in theater and has made all of us come to this realization: How do we reinvent the presentation of this art?” Armstrong said. “Once a vaccine is found people will still be reluctant to come into a theater. Now we have to study the art of film making because long gone are the days when you just put a camera on a tripod and shoot a live performance.”

He said the production of “Hamilton” streaming on the Disney channel showed how it could be done — with multiple cameras and flexible visual dynamics.

“With the advent of COVID, people are staying home and if that’s how they want to experience theater, we have to provide if for them,” he said. “I think it opens up the art to people who never considered going to a live show.”

For more information, visit www.brtkc.org.

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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