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Arts & Life

Kansas City's Coterie Theatre Co-Produces Nationwide Virtual Play And Conversation About Race

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Provided by The Coterie Theatre, courtesy of 'A Kids Play About Racism.'
A screenshot of scene two of the virtual performance of 'A Kids Play About Racism.'

Looking for a way to spark meaningful conversations for families about race, the Coterie joined up with theaters across the country to present “A Kids Play About Racism.”

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, people took to the streets to protest police killings of Black Americans and to raise awareness about systemic racism. Books about race and social justice, such as “How To Be An Antiracist,” “So You Want To Talk About Race,” and “White Fragility,” flew off the shelves at bookstores and libraries.

Now, there’s something for the kids.

This weekend, the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, partners with 41 other theaters around the country to present the world premiere of a new play called “A Kids Play About Racism.”

“The Coterie is a member of TYA/USA, a national organization for theatres for young audiences in the U.S.,” producing artistic director Jeff Church wrote in an email. “It was this group of professional theatres for families that knew they had to provide families with a way to have a meaningful conversation about race.”

Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Alliance Theatre in Atlanta served as the lead producers.

“The way this has all come about has been a real whirlwind,” said multidisciplinary artist and director Khalia Davis, who adapted the play from Jelani Memory’s book, “A Kids Book About Racism."

Memory’s children’s book publishing company, A Kids Book About, has explored a range of topics, including belonging, cancer, feminism, gratitude
— and racism.

“When I wrote ‘A Kids Book About Racism,’ I wrote it for my own kids,” said Memory in a news release. “I never could have imagined it would have spread so far and wide to thousands of kids all over the world or turned into a nationwide theatrical event.”

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Provided by The Coterie Theatre, courtesy of 'A Kids Book About Racism.'
The new play, 'A Kids Play About Racism,' is based on Jelani Memory's book, 'A Kids Book About Racism.'

The project, with an all-Black cast and creative team, launched in June, Davis said, with rehearsals in early July. It’s scheduled to stream online August 1-2.

“It was definitely sparked by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered theaters and performing arts spaces.

“And so these theaters and institutions were looking for something to grab onto that would show that they are using their artistry as a catalyst for positive change.”

Davis said the collaborative process took place via Zoom, which she describes as “a whole new medium of performing arts.”

“Even though we are not able to gather in physical space right now, the benefit of that is that we could open up casting nationwide, knowing that we could cast anyone from anywhere, as long as they had a good WiFi connection,” she said, “So we have actors from Honolulu, Hawaii, to New York, and everywhere in between.”

“’Colorblind casting’ is now an old notion, replaced by ‘color-conscious’ casting,” said the Coterie’s Jeff Church.

“The same idea continues into conversations with kids, to point out that all young people should be proud of who they are and the color of their skin. 'Differences create diversity and originality’ as the play expressively states.”

Geared towards kids ages five and up, the play explains “what racism is, how to know it when you see and experience it, and what you can do about it.”

Davis said she worked closely with Memory to “visually represent” the book and his experiences.

There are six character, each one based on an emotion: Delight, Rage, Love, Panic, Disgust, and Grief, as well as the author Jelani, as a 10-year-old, and a mother and father.

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Provided by The Coterie Theatre, courtesy of 'A Kids Play About Racism.'
The cast and creative team of 'A Kids Play About Racism.'

Detailed cast bios reveal how the subject matter resonated.

Actor and rapper Davied Morales, of San Jose, California, plays the main character, Jelani, and also wrote the lyrics.

“I felt like Jelani in my younger years,” Morales wrote, “Picked on because of the color of my skin and not knowing how to express my feelings.”

He added that, for him, theater and music became an outlet.

Regan Sims, an actor, comedian, and mime, performs as Grief and Mom. A recent graduate of Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, she’s currently based in Chautauqua, New York.

“It brings to light many of the struggles that I face as a biracial Black woman,” Sims wrote. “It also highlights some of the questions, emotions, responses I have about racism.”

She added, “Even though this is directed towards kids, it's important to see that breaking things down like this can be helpful for adults as well.”

Jessenia Ingram, of Atlanta, Georgia, and a 2019 graduate of Spelman College, plays Disgust.

“Growing up as a young black kid in America, we face certain challenges, and the presence of racism is undeniable,” wrote Ingram. “But these kids today are so smart, aware, and determined. They give me hope.”

“A Kids Play About Racism” streams for free August 1-2 on BroadwayOnDemand.com. Educational materials will be available on-line, including ones for “conversation, reading and exploration” on the Coterie’s website.

Davis said she hopes there will be a life for the production beyond its two-day run.

“We would love to be able to expand it even further, make it so that when we are able to gather together in space, we can present it live,” she said. “We also love the idea that this is something that may be, in its form, more accessible to more people.”