A community college production confronts assumptions and prejudice in Johnson County.

A Kiss Before Dying 

A community college production confronts assumptions and prejudice in Johnson County.

Since she wrote the play Stop Kiss, Diana Son has been guilty by association, caught in that Kafkaesque feeling of being charged as a criminal without a shred of evidence. "A lot of people assume I'm gay from the play," she said in a recent online chat with dramaturge Sarah Ruskin. "A lot of people assume I'm gay because I have short hair. [But] I don't have the need to establish my difference from them. I'm more interested in how people are alike."

It's a sort of beautiful irony, given that her play charts the very same territory, where a seemingly innocent kiss shared by two predominantly straight women prompts a near-fatal beating. Son's play seesaws back and forth with the crime as its fulcrum; scenes alternate between the moments after the crime and the days leading up to it. As a subtle seduction works itself out before the crime, one of the women struggles after the fact to undo every bit of it. Stop Kiss is a tough and funny play that premiered at the Public Theatre in New York in 1998 and now debuts in Kansas City February 28 with a production by Johnson County Community College's Academic Theatre.

"When I read it, I said, 'This is the kind of play the Unicorn would do,'" says Sheilah Philip-Bradfield, a theater professor at the school and the play's director. Unicorn artistic director Cynthia Levin had, in fact, seriously considered the play and then dropped it for something else. "I felt fortunate that we were going to get it," Philip-Bradfield says. "It's our kind of play too.

"Our whole department has a strong philosophy that the students see all sides of life," she continues. "Some of our older audiences don't always like what we do. But we don't do our audiences or our students justice if all we do are musicals, melodramas and Neil Simon comedies."

The college's theater department has ventured into dicey scripts before. Philip-Bradfield recalls the letters received after the department presented Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings and a series of Israel Horovitz one-acts, ruffling a few subscribers' feathers. But then the play The Time at the End of This Time, which is about a young man's simultaneous pronouncements that he's gay and HIV positive, brought only positive responses.

"I'm sure there are unmentioned bounds beyond which the college won't let me go," Philip-Bradfield says. "But there's never been anybody here at the administrative level who said, 'You shouldn't do this play' or 'You should cut this language.' Nobody ever tells me, 'Let's back away from that.'"

Stop Kiss bravely marches toward a brief six-show run that concludes March 4 -- with cast members so young, the ink on their high school diplomas is still damp. At a rehearsal last week, the director gathered the cast and crew together for a lively discussion of homosexuality, identity and prejudices.

One actor says her mother, after hearing about this column, said, "'Oh, great. Lots of lesbians will read Pitch Weekly and come and see you kiss a girl.' But if I'd bring anybody to the play, it would be my 14- and 17-year-old brothers. They need to keep their open minds." It was suggested to another actor that she dedicate her performance to her "homophobic brother." A third says she'd want her father to see the play "because he's very set in his ways. He still has a thing about black people."

The presumably heterosexual cast and crew have all experienced something that Son's script so deftly explores: dealing with others' assumption that they are gay or lesbian. Katie Fern, who graduated last year from Shawnee Mission North, plays Callie, the young woman who shares the kiss. "Because I didn't date until I was 16, people assumed I was a lesbian," she says.

Assistant stage manager Jon Browning, an Olathe South graduate, says he once heard that his sexual orientation was the topic of conversation at a party -- "because I decided to minor in theater, and you know what that means," he says facetiously.

Chris Morrow, who plays Callie's boyfriend, says the one person who has been the least understanding about the play is the one who needs to see it most. "I think the play is important, but my mom's not too thrilled," he says. "I think she'll be way shocked. But [her attitude] is not strong enough that it can't be changed. I've recently come to the conclusion that sexuality is not black and white. There's not one line; there's a lot of gray there. And I think you're only truly defined by your heart."

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