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Jesus Christ Is Back In Kansas City, And This Time, The Superstar Is Caught Up In 'Cancel Culture'

Nicole Bissey
Nicole Bissey Photography
Christopher Barksdale plays Jesus in the Arts Asylum production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'

Performer Christopher Barksdale has given it a lot of thought, and has come to the conclusion that it's quite possible Jesus lived in a "cancel culture" just like we do. 

"We are mirroring what's happening in society today," says Barksdale, who is playing Jesus in the Arts Asylum/This Happy Breed production of the iconic rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. "The same people that loved you and would do anything for you at one moment can, all of a sudden, become very against you and very cruel and talk behind your back." 

The production asks: Isn't that more or less what happened to Jesus? 

Barksdale, who retired from the Kansas City Ballet in 2009, has since developed his acting and singing prowess, and said he was awed to be cast in this iconic role. He and the show’s director, Kyle Hatley, have emphasized the most human aspects of the savior and tried to downplay the more religious aspects.

"You're watching that man struggle with: 'I know what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be doing it like this, and none of you are paying attention, and none of you will listen to me, but I've got to keep trying,'" Barksdale says.

Credit Nicole Bissey / Nicole Bissey Photography
Nicole Bissey Photography
Director Kyle Hatley (right) and actor Keenan Ramos during the show's tech rehearsal.

Hatley, who lives in Los Angeles, spent years in Kansas City as an associate artistic director at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

He has a mission when he works with tried and true productions: The more time a show spends being loved or hated, the harder the "shell" around it grows, meaning that audience expectation and opinion solidifies until the art's original message is no longer accessible.

Hatley's goal as a director and as co-founder of This Happy Breed Production Company is, as he puts it, to "crack the shell and reveal the guts, so that there's an honest relationship between the story being told and the audience's connection to that story without anything else being in the way." 

So, for instance, Chioma Anyanwu's Mary Magdalene isn’t simply singing Andrew Lloyd Webber's "I Don’t Know How to Love Him," but is a real person trying to push past her confusion.

Hatley says that the song isn't one that moves the story along, but Anyanwu's performance makes plain what choosing to follow Jesus means to a regular human.

"It's clearly a person saying, 'I have no idea how to feel about this guy and it's messing my world up,'" Hatley says.

Similarly, when Barksdale sings "Gethsemane," he's dramatizing a moment between a father and son in the most personal way. His own father passed away in March after Barksdale spent a year caring for him.

"I really get to talk to my dad, just like he would have got to ask his father why this has to be, or 'why can't we change it,' or 'why do I have to be the one?'" Barksdale says.

Credit Nicole Bissey / Nicole Bissey Photography
Nicole Bissey Photography
'Jesus Christ Superstar' actors Christopher Barksdale as Jesus and Chioma Anyanwu as Mary Magdalene.

The show's music director, Eryn Bates, has tried to emphasize the nuances of the songs while "rocking" the show. She says that performer Justin Van Pelt's Judas is a straight-up rock star.

"The band really kicks it. It's a rock concert," Bates says.

One of the reasons Jesus Christ Superstar has not had a full-scale professionally staged production in Kansas City since the early 1990s is, according to Hatley, it needs a lot of performers. He's pared down the cast to 16 actors, and Bates is working with a six-piece band rather than an orchestra.

This smaller ensemble was his vision of the show from the start. For over two years, he's considered how working with a group of 12 disciples who would be called upon to perform multiple parts would add to the human aspect he wanted to showcase.

At one point a character strolls through the cast pretending to choose who will play Jesus and who will play Judas, something Hatley says is meant to heighten the tension among the cast more than a bit of schtick for the audience.

He's says it's important to see that any one person could be either: "The fear and excitement is that it could be you playing Judas."

Jesus Christ Superstar from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 9 through Saturday, Oct. 12 at Arts Asylum, 1000 East 9th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64106. Tickets $15-50, with reception on closing night.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that the man pictured next to Hatley is Keenan Ramos, not Christopher Barksdale.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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