Backdrops used for the reading included this white church scene. (Unity Performing Arts Center)
In mid-August a new musical and a new performance center were born in Kansas City.
On Aug. 13, “Broke Open” debuted as a staged reading on the Charles Fillmore stage at Unity Temple. It was the first production of the newly formed Unity Performing Arts Center or UPAC, and it worked as a fundraiser for the project’s equipment, acoustic, lighting and sound system needs. Attendance was good for the five shows, averaging 90 per performance (seating was restricted to 100 for social distancing).
Many in Kansas City will hail the reincarnation of the basement space at Unity Temple on the Plaza. Opened in 1948 as a dinner theater venue (innovatingly vegetarian) and subsequently occupied by Eden Alley restaurant, it has been vacant for several years now. It will reopen as UPAC in early 2022 with a seating capacity of 380.
“Broke Open” was a bold and emotional first choice, one that galvanized the audience, tackling themes of racism, homophobia, civic unrest, faith and family. Of course, it felt troublingly relevant, despite its 1960s timeframe.
Written by Keith Andrews, “Broke Open” featured music he composed with well-known composer, musician and vocalist Robert Pherigo. The two-act play revolves around two college boys, one white and one Black, who befriend one another in Alabama, while planned integration inflames the community.
Besides the two young men, the audience got to know the two families — the well-to-do white mother and father, and the Black grandmother raising her grandson after his father was lynched. Scenes were in their respective kitchens, at a hidden fishing hole, in the college classroom and in the two families’ churches. Staging was simple but effective with full-screen backdrops of stained-glass church windows (the ones from the Black church featuring a Black Jesus), the classroom, and the creek. Two of the final images were of a burning cross and a noose.
The dramatic storyline was matched by the music, with virtually a song in every scene. Rousing gospel numbers were offset by the recurring soft and poignant theme, “Let It Go and Love.” The local cast was vocally masterful, with standout singing performances from Sarah Tannehill Anderson, Oliver Hutchinson and Greta Oglesby. Oglesby, seen previously at KC Rep in “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” heroically centered the show in the lead role of Ms. Mary Small. Steve Williams was dynamic as the segregation-dedicated white minister — perhaps not surprising, as he is himself a practicing minister of 34 years, as well as an actor.
Playwright and composer Keith Andrews has a background just as captivating. Raised in very rural southwest Missouri, Andrews studied medical prosthetics at UCLA and worked in healthcare for 30 years, all the while creating music and art, his passion.
Robert Pherigo has been an active music-maker in the area for 30 years, through involvements with the KC Chorale, newEar, Lyric Arts Trio and as pianist at St. Teresa’s and Unity Temple. Similarly, director Keith Curington has 16 years of musical directing as choral director at Park Hill High School and St. Luke’s United Methodist.
Unity Performing Arts states its mission is “to educate, inspire and provide an affordable venue for historically and socially conscious productions.” Upcoming shows include portrayals of iconic black figures Bessie Coleman and Barbara Jordan, a play depicting cancer caregiving and a cabaret revue. Andrews is working on a new play based on the old stone soup tale “with a Kansas City twist.”
Andrews declares proudly that “Broke Open” received very good feedback from the audience. Questionnaires were sent out to determine strengths and weaknesses of the show and to help direct further efforts. Also gratifying were responses from individuals who see the potential of the project and want to partner with UPAC.
In late August, Andrews reported that “UPAC is currently working with four different resident production companies to establish a performance schedule for the upcoming year.” He added, “We are also entering into negotiations with a restauranteur who has expressed interest in being part of the dinner theatre concept.”
For all who had worked so hard to bring “Broke Open” on stage at Unity Temple, it was music to their ears. Andrews and his partners feel confident that there is now support to “make this dream happen.”
For more information, visit brokeopen.com.