Ida McBeth (photo by Diallo Javonne French)
The Kansas City art world mourns the 2023 passing of notable actors and visual artists, a charismatic singer and nationally prominent playwright among others
In Kansas City, 2023 was a year of painful losses in the arts. A singer, a playwright, visual artists and actors left us. But they also left potent legacies.
I first encountered Ida McBeth more than 40 years ago when she was singing with Rich Hill and the Riffs. This was at Harling’s Upstairs on Main Street. I didn’t know much about Ida before I walked in that night, but I left with indelible memories of her stage presence and her earth-moving voice. Later, she fronted her own band and became a for-real businesswoman, hiring her own musicians, producing her own recordings, designing her own album covers. Her music included jazz standards, ’60s pop classics and sophisticated blues.
As a singer she covered quite a range. Ida could sing with a whisper or rattle the cocktail tables. She was a big, charismatic woman with a big voice.
Through the years we spoke from time to time, and I was able to piece together parts of her biography. Kansas City used to have its own Playboy Club and Ida performed there for a time. She told me how her first husband knocked somebody out in the lobby. She told another story about performing in a club north of the river where a couple of hecklers were giving her such a hard time that the manager “escorted” them outside and later asked Ida to come out to the alley where the attitudinal bar patrons, now bruised and bloody, were told to apologize.
Ida could be honest to a fault. She told you like she saw it. She never tried to pretty things up. So I was sad to hear of her passing March 1. She was 70. Kansas City had lost another potent artist with a unique personality.
But Ida was just one of the talented artists we lost in 2023. Others who contributed to theater, music and the visual arts departed, leaving us with a feeling of wistful respect.
Dodie Brown, a skilled comic actor who was virtually an institution at the New Theatre and its predecessors, Tiffany’s Attic and the Waldo Astoria dinner theaters, died Aug. 1 at the age of 90. Brown, like guest stars and other dinner-theater veterans based in Kansas City, earned a round of applause for simply stepping onstage. “Beloved” is the word. What made Brown special as a performer was her infallible sense of timing. She earned laughs with lines that weren’t necessarily written to get a big response. Much of that came from her onstage interactions with fellow performers.
Richard Carrothers, co-founder of the New Theatre, said she never thought about anything except the scene she was performing at a given moment.
“She intuitively listened, whether she was on stage or having coffee with you,” he said. “She listened. She was always in the moment.”
Co-founder Dennis Hennessy offered his take on Brown’s talent: “Her comedic timing was spot-on. She never told the audience what was funny. She always let the audience discover it. That’s how comedy works. It’s a talent. You never saw it coming. It was wonderful. She could throw away a line and it would be hilarious.”
Many actors are vague when it comes to their number of years on the planet. But Hennessy said Brown was proud of her age. When he drove her for a COVID vaccination she was delighted to show her birth certificate.
Brown also founded the New Theatre Scholarship Guild in 1994. The nonprofit organization annually awards a minimum of 17 scholarships to students in the performing arts at the University of Central Missouri, Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In that way, she continues to make a contribution to theater. Like so many artists, she wanted to give something back.
David Fritts, a versatile, classically trained actor, passed away Sept. 17 of an apparent heart attack. He was 64.
Fritts appeared at most of the established theater companies, including Kansas City Repertory Theatre (formerly Missouri Rep), the Unicorn, Kansas City Actors Theatre, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and the New Theatre.
Fritts was unassuming and affable in private life, but onstage he could be intense, precise and explosive. He could play tragedy and comedy with equal finesse. A career highlight was his riveting performance as the raging Roy Cohn in the Unicorn’s production of “Angels in America.” As Cohn, Fritts tapped into a level of intensity that few other roles demanded.
Fritts was one of those rare actors who seemed equally comfortable performing tragedy or farce.
Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Shakespeare festival, directed Fritts many times at the festival as well as in shows at other theaters.
“He was a hell of a pool player, I’ll tell you that,” Garrett said. “(Audiences) could identify with him on some level. David had a great breadth of ability. And he really gave good advice to (actors) about how to speak the text and how to keep your voice strong. He was a consummate actor in that way.”
Dennis Hennessy of the New Theatre recalled that Fritts appeared in two productions for the company: the seriocomic “Driving Miss Daisy” and the raucous farce “Boeing, Boeing.”
He was excellent in both, Hennessy said.
“Dave was a lifelong Royals fan, a pretty decent pool player and a lover of democracy and whiskey, which often went hand-in-hand,” read his obituary on the Heartland Cremation and Burial Society website. “Dave was an avid reader with the desire to learn and stay current, although he would be the first to say he knew a little about a lot of things but not a lot about anything. There was such an ease to being in Dave’s presence and the world feels a little smaller not having him in it.”
Nathan Louis Jackson, playwright and screen writer, passed away Aug. 24. He was 44. The native of Kansas City, Kansas, saw his plays produced in New York and at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where he was a resident playwright for six years — the first, and so far, only resident playwright at the Rep. The best of his works seen by Rep audiences was “When I Come to Die.” The evocative prison play about a convict who survives the electric chair was a mature work, a sober meditation on questions of mortality, religion and justice.
He first gained national prominence when his play “Broke-ology” was produced in New York under the auspices of Lincoln Center. The play was later staged by KC Rep.
Jackson also wrote for television, most notably for the Netflix series “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” a Black superhero in the Marvel universe.
Artist Joseph L. Smith died Sept. 9 at the age of 83. He was a founding member of the KC Clay Guild as well as The Light in the Other Room collaborative of Kansas City African American artists. He worked in clay and produced delicate watercolors.
“He has left an imprint of goodness upon Kansas City’s artistic consciousness,” wrote KC Studio contributor Harold Smith. Smith’s October 2023 profile in the magazine covered Joseph Smith’s two years in the Army, his career as a firefighter and his two-plus decades as an ATA bus driver. The piece concluded this way: “From veteran to firefighter to bus driver to teacher and artist, Joseph L. Smith is truly a hero for all of us.”