A new play about iconic African-American congresswoman Barbara Jordan will receive its world premiere at the Gem Theater as part of an initiative by a newly formed nonprofit group to bring professional theater to the 18th and Vine District.
“Barbara Jordan: A Rendezvous With Destiny,” a one-woman show written and performed by Saundra McClain, is scheduled for three performances Friday and Saturday. It’s the inaugural presentation by the Kansas City Theater Foundation, organized by arts advocate Allan Gray. Gray is a Lee’s Summit city councilman and chairman of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City board of directors.
The foundation does not yet have its 501(3)(c) tax-exempt status, Gray said, and until it does will operate under the umbrella of the Truman Heartland Community Foundation.
African-American theater companies in some cities have achieved wide acclaim — the Black Rep in St. Louis, the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J. — but Kansas City has never had an equivalent. The formation of the Kansas City Theater Foundation may bring the city a step closer, but Gray emphasized that the foundation will be less a producing than a presenting organization.
Gray said he had talked with representatives of the Black Rep about the possibility of bringing some of their productions to the Gem, but nothing had been decided yet.
“The overall idea is we want to consistently bring in African-American-themed theater in order to fill a niche in this community,” Gray said.
The Gem, Gray said, was the natural place for the foundation to make its debut.
“We see that as our home base, and it’s all part of an effort to solidify theater in the 18th and Vine area,” Gray said.
McClain, speaking from Los Angeles, said she first met Gray in 1989, when she was in Kansas City filming “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They stayed in touch, and when Gray learned she was working on a one-actor play about Jordan, he decided to make it the inaugural production under the foundation banner.
McClain has been researching and writing the piece for two years and was originally inspired to author the show after she realized that many young African-Americans had no awareness of Jordan.
“I think the inspiration was a political argument with my son,” she said. “He’s very into inalienable rights, and I was talking about civil rights and when I mentioned Barbara Jordan, he said, ‘Who?’ ”
Jordan, a native of Houston, seemed to make history wherever she went and whatever she did.
She was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first African-American elected to that body since the 1880s.
In 1972, she was elected to Congress, and in 1974 delivered a historic televised speech as a member of the House Judiciary Committee calling for the impeachment of Richard Nixon because of the Watergate scandal. In 1976, she became the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Convention.
She retired from politics after three terms in the House and became an educator. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died two years later.
In addition to her achievements, Jordan is remembered for her precise intellect and her oratory skills. She was a commanding presence at the podium and possessed an authoritative voice that demanded attention.
But today, McClain lamented, only people above a certain age are familiar with Jordan.
“She was only in Congress for six years and then disappeared from the political scene to a large extent and became very private,” McClain said. “We never heard her name mentioned unless it was Black History Month.”
McClain said when she was girl attending Catholic school in Philadelphia, the only important African-American figures mentioned were the usual suspects: scientist George Washington Carver, runner Jesse Owens and contralto Marian Anderson.
Similarly, she said, education today too often glosses over the struggle of the civil rights movement and the contributions of people like Jordan.
“We take a lot of things for granted today,” she said.
McClain has enjoyed a long career in television and films, with frequent guest appearances on “Law & Order” and its spinoff series, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” She also had recurring roles on “Third Watch” and the daytime soap “Another World.”
Her stage credits in New York include the Broadway production “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which was directed by Oz Scott. Scott is directing her again as Barbara Jordan.
“She’s very forceful,” Scott said of McClain. “There’s a lot of Barbara Jordan in her, so a lot of this is not going to be performed as much as her living her own life.”
McClain and Scott said the script has morphed as they’ve worked on it, and Scott expects that process to continue.
“Yes, it’s changed a tremendous amount, and it continues to change,” he said. “And it will continue to change until it opens on Broadway and we get those reviews and then move on. That’s the way I work. It’s never settled until it’s settled.”
McClain said there were no firm plans yet to take the show to Broadway, but she hopes it has a life.
“I have some goals for the project,” she said. “We’re going to video it and put together a promotional package and see where it goes from there. At this point I don’t know what kind of animal it is yet. I don’t know whether it’s a theatrical piece for an off-Broadway show or if it’s a piece that tours colleges and universities. It’s growing every day. I don’t know what it’s going to become yet.”
The challenge for McClain as an actress is two-fold: to sound like a public speaker who had no peers and to re-create Jordan’s physically imposing (and decidedly unglamorous) stature.
“I will try,” she said. “I will give it my all.”
And with a chuckle she added: “But I am quite gorgeous. I’ll have to pull it back.”