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This Kansas City theater festival is putting local Black playwrights in center stage

 Two posters for theater plays show the titles of "Price of Bail" and "Black Man."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Crescendo Award festival is from June 8-11 at the Asylum Arts Theater in South Kansas City.

The Crescendo Award festival started to provide an inclusive space to amplify the work of underrepresented local playwrights. It helps showcase the diversity in Kansas City’s theater scene, said one honoree.

Olivia Hill never thought she’d get the opportunity to stage one of her plays for a hometown audience.

“I wanted to go to art school, but I was kind of just laughed at, like, ‘You're not going to get in there,’” said the award-winning Black playwright, remembering her days as an aspiring writer in the 1980s. “So I sort of gave up on that entire idea.”

Instead, at the age of 22, Hill left Kansas City for Alaska. In the years since, she’s become an accomplished visual artist and author.

This weekend, Hill's play “The Price of Bail” and “Black Man, MO,” by Terrace Wyatt Jr., will be featured at the 2nd annual Crescendo Award theater festival at the Arts Asylum.

After being rejected in the past, Hill was reluctant to return to Kansas City’s theater scene. But after meeting with the executive director of Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City, Jake Walker, she found the dynamics that once excluded her had shifted.

“They were willing to look at one of my plays and told me to submit it for a grant,” said Hill. “To my surprise, they accepted it.”

Hill said her play was not selected by other theater companies in the past because some judges labeled it “too Black” for their audiences to accept.

A woman sits in a chair looking off camera. She has long hair and is smiling.
Olivia Hill
Olivia Hill's play "The Price of Bail" is being staged at the Crescendo Award festival in Kansas City. It's a drama about survival and three sisters with a fraught choice to make about a family member accused of rape.

“We have Black theater going on here in Kansas City, but when I was coming up there was no possibility,” she said. “There is now a small, little chink in the wall for us to slip through.”

Jake Walker’s Theater Community Fund of Kansas City funded and helped hire stagehands for both plays.

“The festival promises to be an unforgettable event that celebrates the artistry and talent of Black playwrights,” he said, adding it was created to disrupt systemic barriers that underrepresented artists here have historically had to deal with. Walker hoped the festival would also help tackle issues that concern the Black community specifically, including violence and generational trauma.

Now, Wyatt and Hill’s productions are part of that effort.

The plays were selected by a local committee last year, according to Korey Childs, Arts Asylum’s artistic director. He said they beat out many other local entries.

“These two stories seemed to be very important, and brought to light new and interesting viewpoints on subjects we do not always get an insight into,” Childs said.

A man sits in a darkened theater with his elbows lean in a soft red theater seat. He is smiling and looking down.
Terrace Wyatt Jr.
Award-winning actor and playwright Terrace Wyatt Jr.'s play "Black Man, MO" is one of two featured at this weekend's Crescendo Award festival. The piece follows a Black mother whose son was killed by police.

Wyatt’s play explores a mother’s pain in the aftermath of her son’s death at the hands of police. Wyatt said presenting his art during Juneteenth represents change in Kansas City.

“It's a celebration of being seen and being heard and just enjoying our presence, versus feeling, like, being invisible,” Wyatt said.

The Crescendo Award festival begins at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 8 at the Arts Asylum Theater, 824 E. Meyer Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64131, inside A to Z Theatrical Supply. Tickets start at $20.

As KCUR's race and culture reporter, I want to provide nuance and context to the political, cultural and sociological issues that divide us. After a decade with the U.S. Navy as an engineer, sailing to four continents and many island nations, I strive to show humanity’s many similarities instead of our perceived differences. Contact me at lbrooksiv@kcur.org.
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