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Kansas City Musician Lisa Henry Tackles The 'Hard Questions' About Race

Courtesy photo
Kansas City Young Audiences

With a national spotlight on issues of racism and inequality — including protests after police shootings of unarmed black men and removal of the Confederate battle flag in some public places — jazz vocalist Lisa Henry says she wants to encourage more conversation in Kansas City with a new work called "Dear White People: The Racism Monologues Set to Music."

It will be part of the  11th annual Kansas City Fringe Festival, which begins on Thursday, bringing more than a week of provocative theater and other performances to town.

Henry's production borrows its name from the 2014 film, "Dear White People," but it's based on Henry's observations.  

"Around the time of the Trayvon (Martin) verdict, and even before then, I kept a little journal," Henry says. "I started, you know, just kind of writing to white people. Just invisible white people that, you know, if I had an opportunity to say something to you all, what would it be? It just kind of bloomed into this." 

A bassist and violinist will accompany Henry in "Dear White People," as she shares some of her own experiences — as a world traveler and as a mother, raising a 14-year-old son.

"One of the reasons that I, as an artist, have decided to risk this and put all of what I am on the line is for him," she says. "At the end of the day, I want him to know that his mother tried to be a part of solving it."

During the performance, Henry will also take on other personas, such as a woman with a Southern drawl. 

"This character, I'm sure will develop more over time," she says. "But, I was thinking: OK, if there were a character who could address white people as a whole and kind of give them a few 'lessons,' kind of make it seem funny, but kind of hit it with a punch ... what would that look like? How would she sound? So that's how I drew on that character." 

Henry says the time is over for talking about race in "hushed tones," or in a politically correct way.

"No, let's take all that away," she says. "Let's ask all the hard questions."

'Dear White People: The Racism Monologues Set to Music,' Saturday, July 18, 11 p.m., Wednesday, July 22, 8 p.m., and Friday, July 24, 9:30 p.m., at The Fishtank, 1715 Wyandotte, Kansas City, Missouri.

A complete listing of performances at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, July 16-26, ishere

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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