A new one-act play re-examines an enormous explosion that rocked Kansas City and killed six firefighters. The jury convicted five men of setting the 1988 fire, but investigative reporting has cast doubt on key facts in the case.
The process of producing the play, called Justice in the Embers, meant writing a script with a dogged journalist and visiting a convicted felon.
On a cold January night, the heater was roaring at a rehearsal room at The Fishtank in the Crossroads Arts District. A handful of actors gathered around a table, and Moses Brings Plenty and Amy Attaway leaned forward in their seats to read through a scene in a prison.
Brings Plenty plays Bryan Sheppard, who is serving a life sentence for the fatal 1988 arson. Sheppard was 17, a minor at the time of the crime and the youngest of the five defendants.
The actors were talking about a Supreme Court ruling that will make Sheppard eligible for a re-sentencing hearing:
Amy Attaway as Sheppard's attorney, Cyndy Short: "Miller vs. Alabama is a real chance for us. Supreme Court decisions in our favor don’t come down often. It’s big for them to rule that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment."
Moses Brings Plenty as Sheppard: "Cruel and unusual punishment. I wish they were serious about looking into all those things around here that would fit that bill."
Jennifer Welch is the co-creator and director of StoryWorks, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Back in December, Welch huddled with reporter Mike McGraw over an early version of the script, based on McGraw’s decade-long investigation into the trial for The Kansas City Star. The two checked facts and made cuts.
"So it goes, 'Miller vs. Alabama is a real chance for us. Supreme Court decisions in our favor don’t come down,'" read Welch. "[I'm] cutting here, here. This is all cut."
"You’re like my editor at The Star," said McGraw, and Welch responded with a laugh. "That's a good thing."
Welch has collaborated with the CIR to direct and dramatize investigative projects such as reports on accidents in the Bakken oil fields and fumigants in the California strawberry fields.
"So often when we are reading the news or listening to the news, it’s a very solitary experience," Welch said. "But when you can bring what’s happening in communities, with deep and thoughtful investigation, to a group of people at the same time, it’s an incredibly fulfilling experience for all — for journalists, for artists and for audience members."
There’s an inherent tension in turning investigative reporting into theater. When new information comes to light, the story can change. So McGraw’s primary role was to make sure all the facts were correct. But after investing so much time, he was initially reluctant to hand it off.
"I feel like I’ve taken my infant child and given it to another person and said you take care of it for a while," he said.
McGraw, who's now based at KCPT, said he knew the project was in capable hands when he met playwright Michelle T. Johnson, a former journalist and an attorney. Johnson said she understands McGraw in a way that only another reporter can.
"There’s just a way that reporters are both cynical and beautifully naive at the same time," said Johnson. "That’s Mike in a nutshell and I totally connected with that."
Even for an investigative reporter, who said he's used to poking around where he doesn’t belong, the theater is all new territory.
"It’s really been eye opening," McGraw said. "I’ve been to theater, but I’ve never understood the process. I’ve never stopped and analyzed it, and it’s been fascinating to watch how layers of meaning get added from the time the script gets written to hearing the actors read their parts around a table."
Occasionally an actor heads in the wrong direction, Welch said.
"You can often have the same words quoted, but if the intention of the actor is altered, then an alarm bell goes off for the journalist," she said. "They may not remember the quote exactly, but they know that intention was incorrect. So we have this dance that goes back and forth, and it can be wildly frustrating."
The stakes are even higher for one person. Bryan Sheppard has served 20 years of a life sentence for a crime he insists he never committed. Sheppard said he hopes this new play will draw fresh attention to his case.
"It’s kind of a shock. It’s almost like this guy’s going to play a part of my life," he said of Moses Brings Plenty. "But I trust Mike and all these people doing this play and all my supporters."
Because portraying a living person presents an unusual challenge, several performers decided that meeting the people they play onstage will bring a deeper connection to their roles.
After visiting Sheppard at the detention center in Leavenworth, Kansas, Brings Plenty said he felt a weight of responsibility.
"Now, I have someone to put with what’s in my mind and in my heart, you know," said Brings Plenty. "I’ve seen photos of him. To me, photos just really don’t do justice to anything. It doesn’t do justice to the spirit and that’s what I got to see tonight."
For playwright Michelle T. Johnson, this play is a chance to revisit a moment in Kansas City history.
"It gets to take all the hard work that Mike McGraw and others have done and in just one, one-hour story," she said, "create this other way of looking and thinking about something that’s been an issue in the Kansas City community for almost 30 years."
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.
StoryWorksKC presents 'Justice in the Embers,' by Michelle T. Johnson, directed by Jennifer Welch, February 4 - 20, at The Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St., Kansas City, Missouri. 816-533-5857. The production is presented by KCPT, The Living Room Theatre and The Center for Investigative Reporting.