Performing Arts

Veteran actor plans KC’s first professional black theater company

“It is the mission of this company to give life to those neglected stories, virtually untold stories in the American theater,” Damron Russel Armstrong said of his new black repertory theater company.
“It is the mission of this company to give life to those neglected stories, virtually untold stories in the American theater,” Damron Russel Armstrong said of his new black repertory theater company. Special to The Star

It’s an old private joke for your humble theater critic: Every time I turn around, another theater company opens.

In September, Katie Gilchrist announced she would be the artistic director of the Kansas City Irish Theatre, which is associated with the Irish Center. Gilchrist has announced a season and expects to get her theater on its feet next year.

Now veteran actor Damron Russel Armstrong has unveiled his vision for an Equity theater company that specializes in plays by and about African-Americans.

Through the years non-Equity theaters have popped up from time to time to perform plays by black playwrights with largely black casts, but Armstrong wants his Kansas City Black Repertory Theatre to be fully professional. KC MeltingPot, a non-Equity company that organized in 2013, has staged plays by both black and white playwrights and is dedicated to diversity.

And while the Unicorn, Coterie and Kansas City Repertory Theatre have a long history of hiring actors of color and including plays by minority authors in their seasons, Armstrong wants this town to have what many cities have had for decades — a black theater company.

“The one thing I longed for early in my career is that St. Louis had the Black Rep and we didn’t,” Armstrong said. “I always thought: Aren’t we comparable to St. Louis? We’re not as big as Chicago, but certainly we’re as big as St. Louis and have enough of a minority (population) in town to sustain that type of art.”

Armstrong has yet to apply for nonprofit status, but for several months he’s patiently been arranging the building blocks. He’s had conversations with the artistic directors at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the Unicorn and the Coterie.

Chip Miller, assistant artistic director at KC Rep, has been involved and Walter Coppage, one of the city’s best and most well-known actors, has signed on as a co-founder. (Coppage was also a co-founder of Kansas City Actors Theatre.)

Many cities have African-American theater companies and Kansas City theatergoers have had opportunities to see work by some of the best. Lou Bellamy, who in 1976 founded the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., has been a guest director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where he staged productions of the classic “A Raisin in the Sun” and two August Wilson dramas, “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running.”

Ricardo Khan, a co-founder in 1978 of Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, N.J., is a visiting professor at UMKC Theatre, where he has developed and sometimes co-written original works, including “Quindaro,” “Kansas City Swing” and “Freedom Riders.” Crossroads won the regional Tony Award in 1999.

And what was then called Missouri Repertory Theatre staged “The Gospel at Colonus” as a co-production with St. Louis Black Rep in 1998. Director Ron Himes founded the company in 1976.

Armstrong hopes that Kansas City Black Repertory Theatre someday will be mentioned in the same breath as those established theaters. He’s worked with both Bellamy and Khan.

As he developed the idea for a black repertory company, he wanted to make sure he could count on advice and support from local artistic directors, including Eric Rosen at the Rep, Cynthia Levin at the Unicorn and Jeff Church at the Coterie.

“I wanted to touch base with most of the heads of Kansas City theater to see what their thoughts were,” he said. “It’s always good to see what the climate is out there. And they were all in agreement that it was something that was a long time coming.”

Armstrong plans for an inaugural production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” by late spring or early summer. He’s not sure where. Armstrong’s company will join the ranks of other nomadic theater companies in town — KCAT, Spinning Tree — that have no permanent home.

Armstrong’s idea is to present plays that are specific to the African-American community but hold universal appeal for the general audience.

“It is the mission of this company to give life to those neglected stories, virtually untold stories in the American theater,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s important because certainly after Ferguson (Mo.) it became more important that a theater company bridge the gap between the reality of the black experience and the sometimes-incomplete picture the media has presented.”

Armstrong, 47, was born in North Carolina but his family moved to Kansas City when he was 3. His father, Richard Armstrong, played for the Kansas City Chiefs. He attended Ruskin High School and then studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He stayed in the Big Apple five years, then moved to Chicago for three years. Local audiences have seen him perform at the Rep, the Unicorn and the Coterie, among other venues.

Coppage has known Himes, founder of the St. Louis Black Rep, for years. Himes directed Coppage in a production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” a few years ago in Washington, D.C.

“This is Damron’s brainchild … and I think it’s a good thing,” Coppage said. “Damron approached me about this maybe six months ago. I think it’s a worthy cause because this town could certainly use a black rep. Kansas City has one of the biggest theater scenes per capita in the country. With the kind of theater town we are I think it’s time for a black rep.”

Armstrong said that when he announces his first season, people should expect a mix of the profoundly serious, such as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Choir Boy,” and crowd-pleasers like the musical “Dreamgirls.”

“I’ve been around the game long enough to know that you can go hungry on art,” Armstrong said. “You have to give them some titles like ‘Dreamgirls’ that gets butts in the seats so they can get to know the work.”

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell