These are lively times for the arts in Kansas City, propelled in no small part by eye-opening exhibits and productions about Black history and culture.
The year opened with Kansas City Actors Theatre’s “Smart People,” featuring memorable performances by Ai Vy Bui, Ashley Kennedy, Brian Paulette and Terrace Wyatt Jr. February brought KC Melting Pot’s “Fairview,” a “brilliant and challenging, fourth-wall-breaking” production, according to our reviewer Vivian Kane. In March the Unicorn Theatre presented Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole,” about the challenges and adventures of the extraordinary 18th-century British-Jamaican nurse, and KCRep mounted a production of Kansas City, Kansas native Christina Anderson’s much lauded “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” which draws on local history in addressing the country’s legacy of racism and drive for social justice through the prism of the segregated swimming pool.
There is more to look forward to in the fall theater season, including KCAT’s production of 2018 MacArthur Fellow Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” featuring Nedra Dixon, Robert Coppage III, Markeyta Young, and L. Roi Hawkins, and The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City’s “A God*Sib’s Tale,” written by Kansas City artists Nedra Dixon and Pamela Baskin-Watson.
Happily, as this issue went to press, we received news that The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City has won the 2023 Paul Robeson Award, jointly administered by Actors’ Equity Association and Actors’ Equity Foundation. The award recognizes the organization’s impact in going “beyond the stage to enact their commitment to the freedom of expression and conscience, their belief in the artist’s responsibility to society and their dedication to the betterment of humankind.”
This past winter also brought the first screening of a remarkable documentary tracing the history and nationwide influence of gospel music in Kansas City. “I’m So Glad,” a 10-year labor of love by the Electric Prairie Productions team of Paul Wenske, producer and writer; Nancy Meis, co-producer; and Chris Wenske, videographer and editor, played to a packed auditorium Feb. 27 of nearly 1,000 people at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
Narrated by Isaac Cates, artist, composer, arranger, educator and leader of the internationally acclaimed gospel group Ordained, the film is both entertaining and revelatory, offering a deep dive into an important and underknown aspect of Kansas City’s music history through more than 100 interviews with eminent players in the field as well as footage of some 200 performers at Black churches and musical events. More screenings are planned including one at 2 p.m. May 7 at the Kansas City Kansas Public Library, 625 Minnesota Ave. Admission is free. For more, www.imsogladproject.com.
The visual arts also weighed in with some noteworthy contributions to our understanding of Black history and culture, including the “Return the Gaze” exhibit at Block Artspace, a visual powerhouse introducing Kansas City viewers to riveting figurative works by artists from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. Curated by Block Artspace director Raechell Smith and drawn largely from the Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection, Kansas City, and the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art, New York, there was not a weak piece in the show.
The Kansas City Kansas Community College Art Gallery racked up a winner with “Holler if You See Me,” an exhibit of Black Appalachian art, which our reviewer Harold Smith described as “energetic, vibrant, hopeful, and speaks of self-determination, racial pride, and deep humanity.”
Now that spring is here, a few outings are in order. Not to be missed is eminent American artist Janine Antoni’s walking labyrinth replicating the structure of the human ear at the University of Kansas Field Station in Lawrence. (See Brian McTavish, “A Walking Labyrinth in Lawrence,” page 45.) Music fans may want to consider a road trip to the Bob Dylan symposium (May 30-June 2) in Tulsa, where Kansas City author Steve Paul will give a paper on the singer-songwriter. (Learn more about the Tulsa event in Paul’s “See Hear” column, page 12.)
This issue’s sad news is the imminent departure for the East Coast of artist Mary Wessel and her partner Frances Connelly, who both contributed mightily to the intellectual and creative life of Kansas City for more than three decades. Connelly founded the Global Arts Initiative at UMKC, which brought funding and an endowed professorship to the art history program; she is also an authority on the grotesque in art, which she has explored in books, essays and exhibits. Wessel too made her mark as an educator, teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute, UMKC and Johnson County Community College. But Wessel is best known as an innovative artist, who was among the first five to be awarded a Charlotte Street Visual Artists Fellowship when the program launched 26 years ago. In this issue’s Artist Pages, we recognize her contribution in what amounts to a mini-retrospective, accompanied by an authoritative essay by Jane Aspinwall, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.