Kansas City Playwright Explores Troost Avenue, Makes An Unexpected Connection
With its rich history and symbolism as Kansas City’s black-white dividing line, Troost Avenue is a frequent source of material for artists. The current example is a KC Fringe Festival play by Donna Ziegenhorn, whose Bingo on the Boulevard depicts a diverse cast of neighborhood characters dealing with life’s complexities.
Like The Hindu and the Cowboy, performed for Kansas City audiences over a decade ago, Bingo on the Boulevard began with Ziegenhorn interviewing people to collect their stories.
After letting the interview material "wander around in my psyche," Ziegenhorn says, "sometimes I find connections that really weren’t there, but in imagination link together to begin to form a narrative, a story about community."
As it turned out, some surprising connections weren't imaginary.
Marcus Moses, who lives in Central Hyde Park, was among 25 people Ziegenhorn interviewed over the last ten years. For a while, he owned the Del-Mar Restaurant and Supper Club in Midtown.
"Donna happened to come in, and she was interviewing people around town. She met my mother, asked us about our life history. I didn’t think it was necessarily odd," Moses says. "People ask you about yourself all the time."
When it was time to cast Bingo on the Boulevard, an actor named Steve Haynes got the part of the character based on Moses.
When Haynes saw the transcript of Ziegenhorn's interviews, he said, “I knew a Marcus Moses at Ervin Junior High.”
When Moses found out one of the only other African American kids at his South Kansas City middle school would be portraying him in the play, Moses says, “I was floored. We have not seen or communicated with each other in 36 years.”
When the two men saw each other, Haynes says, “He kind of looked at me and I could see his brain moving, working, I said, 'Hey man, it’s Steve.' And he said, ‘Oh my God,’ and he gave me this biggest hug.”
Haynes understood the character based on Moses because he'd witnessed some of the events he read about in Ziegenhorn's interview transcript.
Ziegenhorn’s playwriting process is part of what intrigued Bingo on the Boulevard director Elizabeth Herron.
“America seems increasingly celebrity-focused," Herron notes. "But when you see ordinary people with their stories up on stage, they’re elevated to celebrity. So the audience gets to see their neighbors or people they know and think, 'I know that person, I know that story.'”
Herron knows Kansas City's stories, too. She grew up here, but spent years in New York, working with the Urban Bush Women, at the Apollo Theater and Lincoln Center. She came back four years ago, and this is her hometown directing debut.
"I saw these were characters you don’t see in Mission Hills. You don’t see them in North Kansas City, Lee's Summit or Blue Springs," she says. "They probably do exist in other communities, but they exist in a unique way in the Troost corridor."
Ziegenhorn's narrative device of showing those characters interacting with each other at monthly bingo games also rings true, says Moses.
“Somebody’s playing bingo in this city somewhere," he says. "Whether it’s dominos, cards, or bingo, people try to get together. This is people checking in with each other on a regular basis. Quite frankly, we don’t do enough of that as a society. If we did, we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we do.”
Haynes says the script provokes some healthy discomfort.
“You can see the characters on stage, when people say things, they’re uncomfortable. But it’s through being uncomfortable you learn you grow and you move forward.”
The ten-person cast is a racially mixed combination of experienced actors and those who have have never been on stage. One is a seven-year-old kid. That diversity is especially gratifying for playwright Ziegenhorn.
“How they have come together as a community, it’s like a mirror of what we want to see happen," Ziegenhorn says. “It brings together aspects of art, and drama and theatricality, but it also brings together the social aspects, the fiber of the culture that we live in. I think that’s a magical combination.”
Not unlike the combination of people one encounters on Troost.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.