And now, ladies and gentlemen, the time has come for a discussion of over-the-top, in-your-face, for-profit, populist theater.
Opening this weekend is “Black Bewitched,” the latest production from Late Night Theatre, which in the last year or so has found the ideal home at Missie B’s. The 39th Street bar known for its drag shows and raunchy stand-up comics is the perfect fit for a theater company that specializes in cross-dressing parodies.
Founder Ron Megee, who began staging shows in the 1990s with a defiant core of performers and designers, made a name for himself with crazed versions (he often called them “tributes”) of schlocky movies from earlier eras, including “Valley of the Dolls” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Through the years he and other members of the troupe, particularly Missy Koonce and David Wayne Reed, produced wild shows that took gleeful potshots at arcane corners of pop culture.
The current show trains its crosshairs on a popular 1960s sitcom about a witch married to a “normal” businessman whose middle-class life is often complicated by the antics of her supernaturally gifted relatives. But, as usual, Megee has re-imagined the show with a radical supposition: What if “Bewitched” had been performed by African-American actors?
Megee is directing the show. He wrote the script with Jessica Dressler. The idea, he said, had occurred to him back in the days when Late Night had its own downtown theater.
“I’ve been thinking of it for years, and now I’ve finally found a cast I really liked and put it together,” Megee said. “‘Bewitched’ was a look at interracial relationships without saying so. It was a look at society at a time of turmoil but doing it with comedy.”
Megee uses the basic premise as a platform for an exploration of how African-American culture was later depicted on prime-time TV and in pop music.
“Act 1 is almost verbatim ‘Bewitched,’ and then things start getting crazy,” he said.
Ultimately the show, as Megee described it, explodes into a kaleidoscopic mashup of sitcoms from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including “Sanford & Son,” “Cosby” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. All of it, Megee said, will be “set to the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s.”
The cast includes Ryan Webster (aka Moltyn Decadence) as Samantha; Kory Burch (aka Regina LaRae) as Darrin #1; Ray Fry (aka Widow Von du) as Endora; and Stephonne Singleton (aka Kita Rose) as Aunt Clara. As Uncle Arthur, Meredith Wolfe replaces the originally announced Christopher Barksdale.
Late Night became dormant for a time after it left its home on Grand Boulevard near 17th Street. Last year the troupe re-emerged at Missie B’s.
The influence of the Late Night aesthetic on local theater is undeniable. Megee, like other performers associated with the outfit, found his way into mainstream productions at the American Heartland and the New Theatre. In 2012, he co-starred with Mark Robbins, arguably the city’s finest classically trained actor, in the KC Rep production of Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a genre-busting, gender-bending farce in which two actors play dozens of characters.
Ludlam, who founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the 1960s in New York, is the inspiration for much of what Megee does in Kansas City. Ludlam’s satirical plays were often steeped in literature but almost always executed with an anything-for-a-laugh sensibility.
In October, De De DeVille, a drag performer who temporarily went “mainstream” when he/she appeared in a supporting role in “Harvey” at the New Theatre, will produce and star in “Die Mommie Die” by Charles Busch at Crown Center. DeVille has appeared in several Late Night productions. Busch was inspired by Ludlam but found greater mainstream success.
Megee said his way of developing a script is less about slaving away at a keyboard than it is finding out what his actors can bring to the work.
“You know Late Night,” he said. “Our plots are really thin. We improv and work on ’em until we have a script. We’re one step away from the Ridiculous Theatre of Annoyance.”
(The Annoyance Theatre, based in Chicago, got started in the 1980s. Reportedly, its “Co-Ed Prison Sluts” at one time was the longest-running musical in Chicago theater history).
Megee said Missie B’s in many ways is the ideal home for Late Night, because the club absorbs the overhead costs. The stage is configured to seat about 100 theatergoers for each Late Night performance. The Friday and Saturday shows start at 8 p.m. and have to be over in less than two hours. The drag shows, Missie B’s claim to fame, begin at 10 p.m. sharp.
“We’re having about 2,000 people see each of our shows,” Megee said. “It’s pure escapism. Just know that coming in. You’re going to see all levels of acting ability. Backstage, during intermission, we have to move to one side of the dressing room because drag queens and drag kings come in and start getting ready. Our sets have to be incorporated into their shows or they have to be movable.”
The theatergoers, he said, cut across class lines. You might see a politician or a member of the financial elite sitting next to a leather daddy.
“Our audience base is just twisted,” he said. “And you have a captive audience drinking. How can you beat that?”
The for-profit model, Megee said, makes sense for the kind of entertainment he produces.
“I realized after 10 years of Late Night that boards of directors aren’t really for us,” he said. “There are not grants for this kind of theater.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
“Black Bewitched” opens Friday and runs through Sept. 28 at Missie B’s, 805 W. 39th St. Call 816-235-6222 for tickets.