QUINDARO: The Power of Theatre
It began with a Google search: ‘underground railroad Kansas City.’ Up popped stories about the Quindaro Ruins in Kansas City, KS. In the 1850’s, white abolitionists secured 1000 acres of hilly, vine-covered land from the Wyandot Tribe, to build a town that was across the river from Kansas City, Missouri. The town was to serve as the first step to freedom– the last stop on the underground railroad– for Negro slaves escaping across the Missouri River. As slaves would escape to Quindaro (a Wyandot Indian word for ‘bundle of sticks’; one stick can break, but together the bundle is unbreakable), they would be fed and sheltered by the abolitionists. Bounty hunters would frequently raid the settlement, capturing runaways and free Negroes alike to resell.
Few from Kansas City had ever heard this story before.
Tony Award-winning Artistic Director Ricardo Khan had just begun his new position with UMKC Theatre as Visiting Professor. The plan was to create a new play on a two-year cycle with UMKC Theatre students. Each play would engage our students in the struggles of people of color, would deeply involve the community, and once performed at UMKC, would move on to further performances and development at the Tony Award-winning regional theatre founded by Khan, the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. Khan’s position also engaged him in the recruitment of graduate students for the MFA Theatre program, particularly exceptionally talented students of color.
It was July 2006 and Khan now had the first subject for this new play: Quindaro. And it would perform underground, in a railway station, at Union Station’s City Stage Theatre. UMKC Theatre would produce this play in a two-year process of development, workshops and performance. MFA Theatre students would be involved in every step of the process. The Kansas City community would join the process as soon as a draft of the script was prepared by playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson. She wrote the play at the same time she served as executive producer, principle writer and show-runner for the ABC Family hit television series “Lincoln Heights.”
UMKC Theatre has two guiding principles: first, established in 1964, is to create a ‘teaching hospital for the theatre’ where students work side-by-side with professional artists. Second, was to make ‘the city our campus’, which began in 2004 when UMKC Theatre turned a corporate A/V space in the lower level of the renovated Union Station into a fully-functioning theatre called City Stage Theatre. For the ‘teaching hospital’, we hired veteran television and film actor Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum) to play the role of Gibbons, the guiding soul of the play. To connect to the city, we partnered with Janith English, Principal Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, and activated her Native American community. Jesse Hope III, President, Concerned Citizens for Old Quindaro, introduced us to the African American community living in Kansas City, Kansas adjacent to the Quindaro Ruins. Reverend Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson, President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, connected this play to the wider community through the African American churches throughout Kansas City. And our guide was Marvin Robinson II, Quindaro Historical Sight Activist for over 25 years.
The process of workshops and rehearsal quickly led to our performances in Union Station. Quindaro went on to an extended run in the 200-seat theatre and sold at 110% capacity. African American and Native American families were buying 15-20 tickets at a time and bringing their families, their children, to see their own story on stage.
The closing performance was special. Our student ushers were confused, because many from the audience were bringing black plastic bags into the theatre. During the final bows, it was revealed. They began throwing flowers onstage to the cast. Many were crying. Some had seen the play over five times. It was their story. The cast was crying too.
Finally, Quindaro had a powerful community and political impact. The Quindaro Ruins had been under assault for years; first by a refuse company wanting to turn this historical site into a land fill, then by developers wanting to build condos with views of the Missouri River and Kansas City, Missouri. The play however was attended by Kansas politicians from the state, county and local level, and they unified and protected Quindaro. The message below came from Quindaro activist Marvin Robinson II:
Dear Mams and Sirs,
The local government here in KC- the Unified Government- will dedicate the Quindaro Ruins platform overview at 1pm. I am taking the liberty to say “THANK YOU”, from inside the spiritual soul heart of this 21 years and 4 months of trying to preserve and restore this western cradle and shrine of American and international freedom.
UMKC Theatre’s PLAY about “Quindaro”, some residents are still talking about it, like it was a concert/ or on TV last week; the PLAY inspired city hall to go forward—
Marvin S. Robinson II 9/13/2008
Theatre can have this kind of power.
Subsequent productions produced by Khan with UMKC Theatre students have been:
Train to 2010, a play that takes place in South Africa as that nation rushed to introduce itself to the world through the 2010 World Cup, presents the question: since the end of apartheid, which blacks have benefitted, and who has been left behind?
Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing, is a play that takes place in Kansas City in 1947 as Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball. The play portrays the unintended consequence of this integration: Negro League Baseball ended in 1951, and the thousands of black-owned businesses thriving around this league closed as well.
Freedom Rider: the play portrays the bringing together of young people of all races, genders and faiths in 1961 to be trained by CORE and sent by bus into the Jim Crow South to integrate bus stations.
Freedom Rider was planned as the first of a trilogy. UMKC Theatre and Professor Khan have been working on the second installment, Freedom Summer that lives in the world of organizing young people in 1964 to go south and do voter registration work. This play was given a public reading in May as part of the KC Reps “Origins KC” new play festival, and is currently set to be in production in May 2018. The third part of the trilogy will be Freedom Riots, taking place during the 1968 race riots that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Ricardo Khan was given a termination notice by the university in May. Should this termination hold, Freedom Summer will be cancelled. Our students have worked on this project for over a year. Playwrights Denise Nicholas and Sibusiso Mamba have been commissioned and have been writing. Mica Thomas of Quixotic Fusion has been slated to participate in projections. Several professional Kansas City actors would have joined the cast.
Losing Ricardo Khan will hurt our students and our community.
SAVE UMKC THEATRE writing campaign:
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Write a Letter:
People have asked what they can do to help Save UMKC Theatre.
Please write letters to the following state and university leaders. We encourage you to use your own personal stories, but see below a sample text that you may include.
University of Missouri Board of Curators
316 University Hall
Columbia, Missouri 65211
Office of Governor Eric Greitens
P.O. Box 720
Jefferson City, MO 65102
Subject: Save UMKC Theatre
UMKC Theatre has for nearly forty years generated and supported Kansas City’s theatre community. Kansas City’s vibrant professional theatre scene has brought the city to national prominence as a center for the arts, and it relies heavily upon UMKC Theatre’s training of its young, emerging artists.
Now the very existence of UMKC Theatre is threatened by administrative budget cuts and we ask you to help SAVE UMKC THEATRE, which in turn will save the livelihoods of hundreds of taxpayers and thousands more people because of the proven domino effect of the arts. Arts and culture add $1.1 billion to Missouri’s economy each year, more than revenue generated by professional sports.
We ask that you urge UMKC’s administration to support and maintain UMKC’s highest nationally ranked program, the MFA in Theatre.