Before dawn on Nov. 29, 1988, a fire at a south Kansas City construction site touched off a massive explosion that took the lives of six firefighters.
The flames reached a trailer containing ANFO, an explosive material consisting of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The resulting blast left a crater and could be heard 40 miles away.
Those are undisputed facts in a case that continues to raise questions. Ultimately five people, all with criminal records and four of whom were high school dropouts, were convicted and sentenced, despite a lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime. Key testimony fingering them as the culprits came from convicts with an incentive to reduce their sentences. People identified as plausible suspects were not charged. A jury appeared to misunderstand the trial judge’s instructions. And some witnesses for the prosecution later recanted.
Despite all of that, four of those convicted — Frank Sheppard, Darlene Edwards, Bryan Sheppard and Richard Brown — remain behind bars. A fifth, Earl “Skip” Sheppard, died in prison.
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Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Kansas City Star, followed the case doggedly, repeatedly digging up information that raised questions about the legitimacy of the convictions. McGraw retired from The Star in 2014 and now works for the Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT, Kansas City’s public television station.
Some firefighters and family members of those killed in the blast believe the right people are in prison. But McGraw saw and continues to see stubborn questions about the evidence and how prosecutors handled the case.
“I can’t tell you I think these five people are innocent, but I can certainly tell you I think there’s something wrong with this case,” McGraw said.
Now, after decades as an investigative reporter, McGraw finds himself a man of the theater — a status he never expected. A new play, “Justice in the Embers,” is based on McGraw’s reporting and beginning this week will receive its world premiere at the Living Room, downtown Kansas City’s funky, alternative theater space.
The one-hour piece, written by Michelle T. Johnson, is a co-production of the Living Room, KCPT and the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. After its Kansas City run, the show will be performed in San Francisco. The center, through its Storyworks program, has produced several plays based on factual reporting.
Making theater is a whole new world for McGraw.
“When I first heard about it my head kind of exploded and went ‘Wow,’ ” McGraw said. “It seems to me a play could reach a completely different audience. … I’m really excited about how you make this leap from journalism to the stage. It’s been a fascinating process.”
Previous Storyworks plays based on investigative reporting include:
▪ “Alicia’s Miracle” by Octavio Solis. The play, created in the tradition of El Teatro Campesino, examines the use of fumigants and the strawberry pickers exposed to them.
▪ “North by Inferno,” by Jon Bernson, about a devastating explosion and its aftermath in the North Dakota oilfields.
▪ “Headlock” by William Blivins, based on an investigation of abuse at adult care facilities in California.
▪ “A Guide to the Aftermath,” by Jon Bernson, about female veterans suffering from PTSD.
▪ “This Is Home” by Tassiana Willis, Donte Clark, Will Hartfield and Deandre Evans about living conditions and corruption in public housing.
Each production was directed or co-directed by Jennifer Welch, a San Francisco-based theater artist who developed the concept of Storyworks through discussions with leadership at the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Justice in the Embers” is the first play not directly based on work by the center.
“Storyworks came directly from the idea that when people consume journalism in the news they’re often doing it in private,” Welch said. “It’s a very personal activity on our computers, with our phones, in our cars. And we don’t have the chance to engage in dialogue, and when we do it’s often through Facebook or Twitter.”
The idea, she said, was to find a way to reflect important topics onstage in a timely manner.
“New play development often takes quite a lot of time,” she said. “It can take years. Often what happens is you lose relevancy. And the idea that we could make theater now about things happening around the country was very appealing to me. And the best way is to partner with long-form immersive journalism.”
Welch said she and her KCPT producing partners looked at applications from about 15 playwrights before deciding on Johnson, whose background as a reporter and a lawyer made her ideal for the project.
“I think first of all you want to work with incredible journalists who are interested in taking their reporting into a different form,” Welch said. “And that is very exciting, but it can be worrisome to the journalist. So for me the biggest challenge is finding the right playwrights and the right reporters.”
Johnson, who in the last few years has gradually developed a national profile as a playwright, said “Justice in the Embers” was particularly challenging.
“It was a tough one,” Johnson said. “The play itself isn’t about the fire, it isn’t about the firefighters dying. It’s about what that triggered. … For me, it’s how do I tell that story in a way that’s theatrical and true and in a way that is faithful to events.”
The cast includes Amy Attaway, Chris Roady, Nancy Marcy, Tim Ahlenius and Frank Oakley III. Making his Living Room debut as Bryan Sheppard is Moses Brings Plenty, a film and television actor who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Johnson said much of the play’s focus is on Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of his conviction and therefore considered a juvenile. A ruling last week by the Supreme Court held that sentencing minors to life without parole was unconstitutional, which could affect Sheppard. Johnson said the ruling obligated her to rewrite the end of the play.
“We’re constantly making revisions to make sure that it’s not so fact-heavy that it becomes unwatchable,” Johnson said. “Next to making sure I haven’t written anything that dishonors the people in this case, that’s the most important thing.”
Johnson met with McGraw several times, and she visited Bryan Sheppard in prison.
“Mike and I have actually become friends,” she said. “We hit it off the first day we met. The next time we joked that we must have been separated at birth. He’s awesome, and because I used to be a journalist — although not since 1992 — he reminds me of why I was a journalist in the first place.”
That said, Johnson conceded that “Justice in the Embers” has not been the simplest writing gig.
“I doubt if there’ll be anything as daunting as what I’m doing with this,” she said. “We’ve got three co-producers, a director out of San Francisco and I’m working with a journalist. It will make any play I write after this so easy.”
What can be called “documentary theater” has a long history that can be traced to the Depression, when the Federal Theatre Project educated audiences about current events and social issues with its Living Newspaper. Other examples include Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice,” based on interviews and public information surrounding the murder of Harvey Milk in San Francisco; Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight Los Angeles: 1992,” about riots in New York and Los Angeles; and “The Exonerated” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, which used the words of men and women who were sentenced to death but later found to be not guilty.
Each of those plays was done in a unique way, and Welch said that’s also true of the Storyworks plays.
“The process is incredibly collaborative,” she said. “The journalist has to be an artist in some ways, and the playwright becomes a journalist and investigative reporter to delve deeply into the story and then interpret it. And the actors have to be incredibly fluid because the play is constantly changing. … For me the challenge is creating the basic piece of art, the best piece of theater I can in those conditions, and to make sure we’re holding the work responsible to those deeply reported facts.”
Rusty Sneary, artistic director of the Living Room, was in the Unicorn Theatre’s production of “The Exonerated” a few years ago.
Sneary said his contribution to “Justice in the Embers” was to put together the crew and design team. Theater artists, he said, are intent on finding the poetry in anything they do. That doesn’t mean there can’t be poetry in a fact-based play, but it’s a different animal.
“So it’s been a real learning process for me,” he said. “It starts with the cold, hard facts. The point of bringing it to the stage is to share those facts. … We’ve all learned a lot from each other.”
McGraw said he has been an active participant from the beginning, but getting involved in theater is still a singular experience for him.
“My role is kind of technical adviser, and I will have some kind of say over the final production in terms of whether this is a fair representation of our reporting,” he said. “It’s weird. It’s like handing over this baby … and saying, ‘I hope you take good care of it.’ ”
“Justice in the Embers” runs Feb. 4-20 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857 or go to thelivingroomkc.com.