Artistic director Cynthia Levin craves new works for the Unicorn Theatre.
This month is a product of that drive with two starkly different productions coming to Kansas City for the first time: “An Octoroon,” a subversive dramedy about a plantation in the American South, and “Application Pending,” a one-woman comedy about an exclusive kindergarten in New York.
The Unicorn fulfills different needs with the two shows, says “Application Pending” director Ian R. Crawford.
“With ‘An Octoroon’ being a weighty play about race in America, ‘Application Pending’ has a message that not everything in our lives needs to be taken so seriously,” he said. “People get bogged down by the weight of it all. It’s important to step back, take a deep breath and enjoy things, too.”
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapted a 19th century melodrama by Dion Boucicault about forbidden interracial love to create “An Octoroon” and won the 2014 Obie Award for best new American play. With a modern focus in mind, Jacobs-Jenkins inserted himself in the opening monologue.
“He talks about how he wants to adapt the production, but all the white guys quit the show because they thought it was too melodramatic,” said Rufus Burns, who plays Jacobs-Jenkins and other roles in the Unicorn production. “He decides to don whiteface and play the white men himself. It raises an interesting question of race and identity in America and why we are so fascinated by it.”
At first, Burns said, he wrote off the script.
“This may not be acceptable in today’s times,” he said. “Then I realized after reading it again that it’s exactly what we need to be talking about.”
America was different in 1859, but director Damron Russel Armstrong, who founded the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, sees an opportunity to confront the same cyclical issues.
“What we’ve found is that this is like clockwork every 25 or 50 years; we won’t have a conversation about race,” Armstrong said. “We sweep it under the carpet and trip over it over and over again.”
Armstrong sees comedy as a route to progress.
“We learn so much more through comedy than we learn from one standing on a soapbox,” he said. “It allows us to take in ideas more readily. This play looks at racial relations not only between different races but also within a race itself.”
Burns plays the heir to a Louisiana plantation who returns home from Paris to find an interloper (also played by Burns) leading the estate into financial hardship. The heir falls in love with the family’s octoroon slave (an octoroon is a person whose ancestry is one-eighth black), but a white woman from the neighboring property (Cinnamon Schultz) falls for him.
“That’s the role of the woman in that day and age: She is only worth the man she is under,” Schultz said. “To find out he is in love with someone else — that I feel is lesser than me — is huge.”
Schultz says she is thankful to be in a production addressing such issues.
“To have a show that is putting it all out there is amazing,” she said. “To explain to the audience the concept of the show, that there is going to be whiteface, blackface and redface, is to allow people in that kind of venue to witness situations that happened back then and see that certain treatments of people still remain the same.”
“It’s a comedic look at a real issue,” Armstrong said. “We hope that we’ll laugh our way to understanding.”
Kindergarten comedy or cultural commentary? “Application Pending,” written for off-Broadway by Andy Sandberg and Greg Edwards, is both. And both playwrights will be attending performances here.
Christine Evans, played by Jennifer Mays, is a teaching assistant at a prestigious New York prep school who, on the day admissions are due, is blindsided by the news that she is now in charge.
“It’s about the cutthroat world of kindergarten admissions,” Mays said. “Christine is fielding calls from angry and nervous parents, administrators, competitive schools and other teachers.”
The trick here is that in addition to playing Christine, Mays plays more than 40 voices clamoring for her attention.
“I can’t blame anybody else if I forget the lines,” she said jokingly. “Ian keeps throwing me the most ridiculous things. I’m loving it.”
When she took on the role, Mays recalled the Unicorn’s past production of “Fully Committed,” in which Jason Chanos played multiple characters all on phone calls.
“I made myself a track where Christine talks in one ear and all the other people talk in my other ear,” Mays said. “I’ve mixed it that way so I can practice at home.”
Crawford had seen Mays in a number of productions, but the two are working together for the first time.
“We saw a lot of people for this role, and Jennifer totally blew me away,” he said. “The clarity of each character was really impressive.”
Mays said she is looking forward to seeing how the playwrights react. Edwards will attend the official opening night on Dec. 10, and Sandberg will appear for a Q&A after the performance Dec. 16.
“I think this is very different from the way they did it in that it has more physicality,” she said. “I’m hoping that the investment in the emotion and the intent behind what all these people are saying and doing is just as clear as their vocal inflections might be. I’m hoping they enjoy seeing it outside of their original production.”