There’s plenty of talent to keep the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City going, artistic director Damron Russel Armstrong says.
But money is a different matter.
“It’s one of my goals down the line that the Black Repertory Theatre will become an incubator and nurture in-home talent of all minorities in Kansas City,” Armstrong says. “But first we have to get ourselves established. There’s a constant need for funding.”
The theater completed its first season last spring in the Arts Asylum using donations from the Greater Kansas City Fund, the Black Community Fund and other gifts through online charity sites like GoFundMe and Amazon Smile.
The theater is busy applying for funds for the upcoming season, but the budget is uncertain.
“When you’re talking about running a company, though these are much needed and appreciated gifts, it doesn’t compare to what the operating costs of a company are,” Armstrong says. “Most of the money that was raised for that first season was by folks of Kansas City.”
Armstrong, a theater butterfly who has worked or directed on many Kansas City stages, began forming the nonprofit three years ago as a means to, in his words, give life to neglected black productions. He has been doing the equivalent of 24 jobs to develop the theater, he says.
The theater strives to not only entertain but also to educate audiences on black playwrights and legends, says Nathaniel Rasson, a student who appeared in its most recent and largest musical production, “5 Guys Named Moe,” as 4-Eyed Moe.
“I would definitely say that the talent is here, and from what I’ve gathered, you find actors who are tired of feeling like the token for a production,” Rasson says.
His vision of opening night didn’t include the microphones failing and the power going out mid-performance.
“Fortunately, everyone within the production was professional about it and knew how to keep things going,” Rasson says. “But for a new production company, that can really sour opinions for people who have never seen what our company can do.”
Other Kansas City theaters make a point of presenting African-American performers and playwrights, including, just this past season, the Unicorn’s “Eclipsed,” Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and the Coterie’s “The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock.” The KC Melting Pot Theatre showcases diverse plays and playwrights, both new and established, black and white.
But Rasson says audiences need even more exposure to historical black plays. And Armstrong has maintained that Kansas City needs what other cities have long enjoyed: a professional theater dedicated exclusively to black playwrights and plays.
“Overall, I think it’s great that the BRTKC is looking at focusing on black works that haven’t been brought to the forefront,” says Harvey Williams, artistic director of the Melting Pot. “There doesn’t need to be only one of anything. The more you have, the more opportunity there is to provide a platform for those works.”
“Many major cities have black theater companies, and Damron’s effort to build the BRTKC is helping to fill a creative void in our community,” says Pat Macdonald, executive director of the Black Community Fund, which donated $5,000 to the theater last year.
But something has to change for the theater to move forward, Armstrong says. A one-man-band when it comes to chasing grants, he is applying to the city’s Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund.
“What he’s trying to do is very ambitious, and it’s something that’s to be noted,” says Consuelo Cruz, arts marketing coordinator for the city’s Office of Culture and Creative Services. “He’s doing the grunt work, he’s been in theater for a long time and he has a lot of experience and talent.”
Just the rights to produce a show cost $2,000 on average. “5 Guys Named Moe” cost around $30,000 overall, Armstrong estimates. But the earliest the theater could receive money for the coming season will be later in August.
“We need the working capital now,” he says.
The theater’s season opener will be the military drama “A Soldier’s Play,” set for Sept. 14 through Oct. 8 at the Arts Asylum, 1000 E. Ninth St. (More info at brtkc.org or call 816-663-9966.) The hope is that businesses and offices will buy tickets and sponsor a show.
“It’s an almost $20,000 show, and that is a small show,” Armstrong says. “Most musicals are somewhere in the $60,000 range, and that includes paying for professional actors, costumes, the set, the set materials, all the staff needed, the costume designer, lighting designer, the person who hangs the lights. So it’s a pretty pricey endeavor.”
But he says the payoff is worth it. During summer playwriting programs and in rehearsals, Rasson and Armstrong hope more high school students can get involved.
University of Missouri-Kansas City theater students have worked with the theater, getting opportunities they wouldn’t anywhere else, says Carla Noack, an associate professor of acting there.
“We are fortunate to essentially have our campus expanded through the work of Damron’s company,” Noack says. “He’s really good about communicating with us when he has casting openings, when he needs students to come on as assistant directors or fill in here or there.”
“It’s a much needed company here and an important aspect of our theater scene,” she says.
Says Rasson: “We’ll see what happens, and as we do in theater, plan for the worst and hope for the best.”