When he debuted his one-man show at Kansas City’s Fringe Festival in the summer of 2015, Ry Kincaid was already thinking ahead to the 2016 election. No one, however, could have foreseen the need for entertaining relief would be so acute.
Unlike everything else in this season’s torturous exercise in democracy, Kincaid’s Presidential Briefs is good-hearted humor. In writing 44 original songs – one for each United States president – all performed in under an hour, Kincaid was partly trying to be helpful.
Playing a singing history teacher, Kincaid delivers what he describes as a “Wikipedia-on-speed”-like performance: “A super-fast-paced history lesson and also kind of a rock and roll show and standup routine. So it’s a goofy take on a some would say serious topic: presidents.”
Goofiness and brevity, however, do not come at the expense of historical accuracy.
“I just wanted to get facts – just one or two tidbits – in a funny format, almost like country or rock jingles. Because they’re just guys. They’re just human beings when it comes down to it, like you and me.”
Since last year’s Fringe, Kincaid has taken the show on the road. Besides additional runs at Kansas City’s Buffalo Room, he’s performed at bars and libraries in Wichita, Des Moines, and even in the nation’s capital.
“I have a friend who works for the USDA, and every year there’s a farmer’s market on the National Mall. She asked if I could be the entertainment for one of the weekends,” he explains. “Even outside at this farmers’ market, it worked out well – it was unique for people buying produce to hear songs about Rutherford B. Hayes.”
If a musical show involving obscure presidents sounds suspiciously familiar, it’s worth noting that Kincaid wrote Presidential Briefs before Hamilton blew up.
“I developed some of the songs before I even knew about Hamilton.” Then, Kincaid says, “I consciously didn’t check out the music for a long time, because my show is different. But I think it’s only helped generate interest for my show.”
Until he gets to Broadway, however, Kincaid’s happy to keep doing his show in bars and libraries.
“The audiences there have surprised me a little bit,” he says. “I thought I had a great ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ type of performance for maybe my generation or younger” – Kincaid’s pushing 40 – “but lots of older people are coming, too. Perhaps because they, by default, know more history than younger people. So it’s been fun to play to teenagers up to senior citizens.”
This week's run of Presidential Briefs lasts right up until Election Night Eve, but Kincaid is confident it could outlast the current administration.
“The show has legs beyond this election," he says. "I did write the piece for me, but I would love to see somebody else do it, too. It would be fun to see someone who doesn’t look like me do the show, especially in light of what may happen November 8. I would love to see a woman or an African American do the show.”
If that’s jumping to an uncertain conclusion during a season when everything has changed in the course of a day, audiences might, if nothing else, find comfort in the show’s long-view perspective.
Opening the show is First Lady Parts, curated by Heidi Van and billed as "a brief opening act that pays homage to the women who broke the mold and broke the ceiling."
Presidential Briefs, with First Lady Parts, Friday, November 4 through Monday, November 7 at the Fishtank Theatre, 1715 Wyandotte, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-809-7110.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.