Robert Trussell

African-American actors are appearing in KC productions in unprecedented numbers

Updated: 2013-11-17T04:23:08Z

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Nobody can remember anything quite like it.

It could be an alignment of the planets. Or it might be a sign that Kansas City is growing up.

Either way, Kansas City theatergoers have a rare opportunity in the coming weeks — the chance to see more professional African-American actors on local stages than at any time in recent history.

The confluence of programming through the end of the year includes Spinning Tree Theatre’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a show with an all-African-American cast, which concludes its run today at Just Off Broadway Theatre; “The Wiz,” which also requires a cast of black actors, running through early January at the Coterie Theatre; and “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ satirical response to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “Raisin in the Sun,” at the Unicorn Theatre in December.

Also in the mix are Melting Pot KC’s “JFK: A Ghostly Evening,” depicting an imaginary dinner between John and Jackie Kennedy and Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta; Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which Walter Coppage returns as Bob Cratchit, a role he has played for years; and “Christmas in Song” at Quality Hill Playhouse, where the cast will include Linnaia McKenzie, a young actress who moves directly to the annual holiday revue from “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

The explosion of performances by actors of color points to a significant change in the Kansas City theater community over the last 20 years.

The trend once was for young actors to pack up and leave as soon as they finished college. Now more professional actors are choosing to stay in Kansas City, at least in the short run, because the relatively low cost of living and the profusion of professional and semi-professional theater allow them to build resumes before they strike out for New York or Chicago. And there’s enough work here that some simply don’t leave.

Bottom line: The larger pool of actors means a corresponding increase in the number of African-American actors.

But that might not be the only reason.

“You know, I kind of feel like theater in Kansas City has reached a point where we’re not really concerned about telling black stories or white stories but telling human stories — stories that everybody can relate to regardless of the color of the protagonist’s skin,” said Jennie Greenberry, who’s appearing in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and will be in the cast of “Romeo and Juliet” at KC Rep in the spring.

Harvey Williams, a character actor and founder of Melting Pot KC, said it may be that the theaters in town have finally caught up with the talent pool.

“I really think that it’s been more of a change in the shows that are getting done,” said Williams, who is co-directing “JFK: A Ghostly Evening.” “I think there’s been a little more attention to contemporary stories that involve African-Americans. There’s always been a good number of African-American actors and actresses, but it was limited in the productions that were available to them on the professional level.”

Opportunities for black actors have traditionally fallen into two types of shows: musicals and historical dramas that depict the African-American experience from long ago (think of August Wilson’s drama cycle).

But a new generation of playwrights is producing work that portrays African-Americans much closer to the here and now. Indeed, Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, founders of Spinning Tree Theatre, had planned to produce Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” a play about a contemporary middle-class black family, before the rights were withdrawn. They chose “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a revue based on music written or recorded by Fats Waller, in its place.

Williams appreciates the contrast between the Waller show, which he called a “great entertainment,” and “JFK,” which moves into Just Off Broadway Theatre the weekend after the musical closes. “JFK: A Ghostly Evening” is a dreamlike fantasy with a biracial cast that includes veteran actress Lynn King as Coretta Scott King.

“That’s why I love ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ being here right before our production goes up because that’s basically the best of both worlds,” he said.

The joke among African-American actors used to be that the only time they could expect employment was in February, which is Black History Month. But local theater companies have gotten away from programming “black plays” during February.

In June, Coppage played Martin Luther King and Chioma Anyanwu co-starred in the Unicorn’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” a play that in the past might have been automatically slotted for a February run. More recently, Anyanwu played a role at the Unicorn in Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” that was not written specifically for an African-American actress.

“The Coterie and the Unicorn have always tried to find shows with diverse casts or that would have open roles for African-Americans,” Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s artistic director, said. She suggested that more theaters “are opening up and doing more shows with opportunities for African-American actors.”

Emily Shackelford, an actress in her 20s who is reprising the role of Dorothy in “The Wiz,” said that as a person of mixed race she hasn’t encountered any obvious obstacles to opportunities in Kansas City. She has played black and white roles as well as roles with no specific ethnic identity. Immediately before “The Wiz,” for example, she played a Georgia debutante in “The Foreigner” for Kansas City Rep.

Shackelford said that as a kid, she never really thought of herself as black or white. And nobody asked her to declare her ethnicity. But when she moved to Kansas City to pursue opportunities as an actress, people started asking her to define herself.

“I both fit in nowhere and I fit in everywhere,” she said. “I’m trying to use it to my advantage because I don’t really know what I am. I like being a chameleon.”

Linnaia McKenzie has worked her way up from community theater to professional work during the last year or so and along the way has had opportunities to play roles that traditionally have been played by white actresses, such as one of the shopgirls in the Musical Theater Heritage production of “Sunday in the Park With George.”

“I am really grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” McKenzie said. “I’ve been working and doing shows like ‘Sunday in the Park.’ There wasn’t a black woman in the original cast of that.

“It’s just an honor to know that when (producers) see talent they know it. They’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re auditioning and coming out. We obviously have a huge passion for performance and do whatever it takes to get onstage.”

Still, the community of African-Americans actors is a fairly small one. Eboni Fondren, who got into theater after establishing herself as a jazz singer, said she has worked with most of her colleagues in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in other shows. She appeared with Greenberry in the Rep’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and performed with “Misbehavin’” co-star Ron Lackey in “Bud, Not Buddy” at the Coterie.

“You see the same faces at auditions,” she said. “And then when you do get to do a show together, there’s not that many of us. So there is a sense of community.”

But Kansas City theater, Fondren said, seems to be open to artists who are committed.

“Opportunities are good,” she said. “It’s a great place to get your feet wet. It’s a great place to get good professional experience and advice. I’ve been in the jazz world for years, and crossing over into the theater world, it’s a different kind of work ethic, and you kind of get your butt kicked. For me it’s been a great experience. There’s a lot of opportunities if you work hard.”

Mykel Hill, an actor and director who staged “The Mountaintop” for the Unicorn, said the confluence of black performances might be a fluke, but he hopes not.

“I hope it’s not just a coincidence,” said Hill, who last week began rehearsals for “Clybourne Park,” a play he was familiar with before he auditioned for the Unicorn. Next year he will play the King of Siam in the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The King and I.”

The succession of shows, he said, creates opportunities not just for African-American actors, but also for theatergoers who may get to see performers they’re not familiar with. And he’s impressed with the younger actors of color he has worked with and observed.

“I know one thing: The future is bright,” he said. “I’m really encouraged by the direction we’re headed.”

The shows

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” closes after a 2 p.m performance today at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central Ave. For more information, call 816-569-5277 or go to SpinningTreeTheatre.com.

“The Wiz” runs through Jan. 5 at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or go to TheCoterie.org.

“JFK: A Ghostly Evening” runs Thursday through Dec. 1 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central Ave. For more information, call 816-226-8087 or go to KCMeltingPot.com.

“Clybourne Park” runs Dec. 4-29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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