Performing Arts

For its New Works Festival, KC Rep nurtures plays for months and years

Rufus Burns (left) and Michael Pauley, shown in rehearsal, star in “Man in Love,” a tale of a black serial killer no one suspects.
Rufus Burns (left) and Michael Pauley, shown in rehearsal, star in “Man in Love,” a tale of a black serial killer no one suspects. Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Choosing plays for the OriginKC: New Works Festival is no quick process for Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Festival director Marissa Wolf said she had been in contact with this year’s three playwrights for months (and even years) while their works were in development. The festival gives them the chance to premiere their plays with the backing of a major theater company — a way out of the dreaded “development hell” in which playwrights struggle to find funding for a full-fledged production of a new work.

“All three of our playwrights have the opportunity to really grow their projects and to listen to them,” said Wolf, working in conjunction with Rep artistic director Eric Rosen. “Eric and I really feel that a play cannot possibly know what it is — a playwright can’t know what their play is until they have seen it fully realized in a production form.”

Over the next month, this second annual festival will present an exploration into Native American heritage and pride — “What Would Crazy Horse Do?”; the serial killer thriller “Man in Love”; and a reimagined Shakespeare classic, “Antony and Cleopatra,” which is still in the workshop stage.

The festival, which closes the Rep’s current season, also includes a weekend of staged readings and panels May 12 and 13. OriginKC is part of the Rep’s mission to bring new works to Kansas City and cultivate playwrights’ talents in-house; since October, the company’s new works program has hosted six readings and one “playwright slam.”

“Something I love about Kansas City audiences is that our audiences’ reaction to a play, I think, becomes part of the DNA of the play itself,” Wolf said. “Kansas City audiences have a pretty wide breadth of interests and what they’re willing and able to engage with, so it’s exciting to test out work here in the Midwest.”

“What Would Crazy Horse Do?”

The Ku Klux Klan partnering with Native American tribes seems like utter fantasy, but the inspiration for Larissa FastHorse’s “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” is actually based in history.

While visiting a museum in her home state of South Dakota, FastHorse came across a 1926 flyer for a Klan rally. What interested her the most was the big event at the rally: a powwow with Native Americans for “entertainment.”

“That just blew my mind,” FastHorse said. Although she was working on another play at the time, “I called (the company) immediately and said, ‘I have to change my play.’ I showed them the flyer and they were, like, ‘Oh my God, you have to change your play.’ 

Five years later, FastHorse’s chance encounter with that piece of history results in the world premiere of “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” The play follows Native American twins, the last of their tribe and facing the extinction of their heritage. When the Ku Klux Klan proposes an alliance, they struggle with what it really means to maintain their culture — and at what cost.

FastHorse, a playwright from the Sicangu Lakota Nation who has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, has been working with the Rep for the past year and a half. A reading of her play was presented at last year’s festival, where Sam Pinkleton (a Broadway choreographer whose recent works include “Amelie” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) encountered it.

“I kind of became a Larissa FastHorse superfan,” said Pinkleton, whose love for the show landed him the position as its director.

Embracing the idea that each other’s opinions make the play better, FastHorse and Pinkleton have been open to all kinds of changes during rehearsals. On the night of this interview, they had just given the actors 19 new pages to learn.

But it’s all a part of the new works process, and the soul of the play remains the same — even as the re-emergence of far-right politics and white nationalism adds a new urgency to the work. In fact, as FastHorse researched her play, she spoke at length with members of a KKK faction, who, she said, were happy to explain their reasoning to her.

“I keep telling everyone in the rehearsal process I should get a shirt that says ‘I told you so,’ ” FastHorse said. “Everything that’s happened in the last year, the last five years, is all unrolling just as they said it was going to. And that’s what the play is really all about: showing people that process of how we got here and where it could go even worse.”

Performances of “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” will be accompanied by displays of local Native American art, and music and dance performances from indigenous artists.

“Man in Love”

Like FastHorse, playwright Christina Anderson was inspired by history from the early 20th century — specifically, the invisibility of black serial killers. An essay she read postulated that while white serial killers become fixtures in pop culture, black serial killers are notably overlooked by law enforcement. Why? Because black men are not seen as smart enough to plan and patiently execute a thought-out murder.

“I was really interested in the notion of stereotypes around it, so it’s kind of a weird way of looking at how stereotypes work,” she said.

Anderson, a Kansas City, Kan., native, used this essay as a launching point for her newest play, “Man in Love.” Set in the Depression, the play follows one quiet black man, whom no one suspects to be the one behind the string of murders terrorizing the city.

The play has been in the works for seven years, with the last year in house at the Rep. Wolf, who has directed other Anderson plays, helms this production. The Unicorn Theatre presented Anderson’s “BlackTopSky” in 2013, and Anderson couldn’t miss the opportunity to bring another play back to her hometown. Although “Man in Love” ran for a limited engagement in Chicago in 2011, she’s looking forward to a longer run this time around

“I’ll be able to come back a couple of times and see it, and see it in different ways,” she said. “The biggest thing is seeing how it plays and, because the play moves and I really want to evoke the city quality within the play, I want to see the actors once they settle into it … to see how it lives after it’s been running for a while.”

While Anderson hopes “Man in Love” raises intriguing questions and makes audiences see things in a different light, she certainly doesn’t aim to provide easy answers for them.

“I really do want this play to be a theatrical experience,” she said. “A lot of the things that drive me to create this work come from these questions: the ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ approach to writing.

“I think the thing that I strive to do as a writer is just take the audience on a ride. The questions that I ask are really just questions I want to spark conversation.”

“Antony and Cleopatra”

Unlike the other two works at the festival, Christopher Chen’s “Antony and Cleopatra” will be presented in a workshop format as a co-production with UMKC Theatre. But don’t expect any old-timey English in this Shakespeare; Chen translated the show line-by-line into modern English as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Commissioning Program.

After translating the piece, Chen wanted to do more. With the Rep’s help, he is taking “a first stab at it” at OriginKC.

“It was always my intention to complete my translation and then take my version and do a fun, lean adaptation of it,” Chen said.

The workshop piece is a 90-minute cut of the original three-hour play, forgoing characters and subplots to focus on the relationship between the two titular leaders. Chen also added in a contemporary dream sequence you won’t see in any traditional Shakespeare show. Jason Bohon directs.

Chen said he was attracted to the play because of the two historical lovers.

“Beyond the interesting socio-economical dimensions to it, it was the nature of Antony and Cleopatra’s romantic relationship, which I saw as almost this modern-day power couple,” he said. “They were two very, very independent, high-functioning adults who were doing this kind of long-distance thing. They all had a lot on their plates, ruling empires, but they were also able to carry on this very kind of modern relationship.”

Putting his ideas through a workshop has been a learning experience; when he was in Kansas City for the first week of rehearsals, he made a lot of changes to the script. He said he’s using the opportunity to solidify his plot line and, at the same time, hopes to change people’s minds about Shakespeare.

“I like the idea that Shakespeare’s plays could potentially be performed a lot more in these non-prestigious spaces, either like small, experimental places or big classical places,” Chen said. “It’s a comprehension problem — kind of like an ‘eating your vegetables’ problem — with a lot of it, so I do hope to have my adaptation of it be something that could be performed in nontraditionally Shakespearean houses.”

OriginKC: New Works Festival

▪ “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” runs April 28 through May 28 at the Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way.

▪ “Man in Love” runs April 29 through May 28 at the Copaken Stage.

▪ “Antony and Cleopatra” runs May 5-14 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St.

See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700 for tickets.

▪ The festival will also include a free weekend event May 12-13 with staged readings and panel discussions.

Also opening this week

Morgan Fairchild stars in “The Dixie Swim Club,” April 27 through July 2 at the New Theatre Restaurant. Five Southern women, friends from high school, meet up in their late 40s to relive some of their fondest memories. See newtheatre.com.

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