"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching." Satchel Paige's succinct instructions have been quoted often, but the UMKC Theatre production of Kansas City Swing, a new play by Ricardo Khan and Trey Ellis, shows us a vivid version of the man behind those words.
Paige and other baseball players of his time, including Buck O'Neil and Bob Feller, emerge from history, animated before us. It's September 1947, the year that Jackie Robinson stepped into the all-white major leagues, a time of impending change in baseball and in the black community. Paige is 41 and a Negro Leagues all-star, getting ready for a barnstorming tour against Feller's team.
The play, which Khan also directs, pulls together diverse elements (including music composed and performed by Bobby Watson) to make an affecting work that's poetically written, choreographed and acted.
In an e-mail conversation with The Pitch, Khan talked about his work in theater and his relationship with audiences.
The Pitch: You've directed at theaters around the country, including the Kennedy Center and the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. But you've also directed at the Unicorn Theatre here, and you're a visiting professor at UMKC. How did you become involved with the university and with the KC theater community?
Khan: After conducting a design workshop in 2004 for the graduate school at UMKC Theatre, I was asked to direct the play upon which that workshop was based, The Darker Face of the Earth. It was former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove's first play, and she and I did the premiere of that play together in Ashland at Oregon Shakespeare Festival years before that. The experience of revisiting that play with students was fascinating to me. Also fascinating was the Kansas City I learned to appreciate and become quite fond of. I was also at the time focused on the development of new works, both here in this country and abroad in Johannesburg and London. What followed in KC was my ability to involve UMKC students in these multiyear processes of creating new work, and what resulted was Quindaro in 2008 and Train to 2010 in 2010.
What about KC's theater scene attracts you?
The legacy of baseball, its love of jazz, its rich and storied history. I also continue to be committed to the elimination of barriers between people, and I hope I can have some impact on that with my work, as Kansas City, not unlike many, appears to continue to struggle with that.
Your play Kansas City Swing, which you co-wrote with Trey Ellis, combines the topics of baseball, jazz and racial integration in 1940s KC. What drew you to KC's past, including your previous work here on Quindaro?
With Kansas City Swing, it was the discovery for myself of the impressive black middle class that existed prior to integration. I wished I was there. I wished for the sense of self that must have existed, the music, the clothes, the style of the times. 1947 and Jackie Robinson entering the majors was a pivot point for many elements of how we live, all of us, black and white. And this provided a great backdrop for the telling of a story of the great American game.
As for Quindaro, that came from Googling "Underground Railroad Kansas City" and seeing that the first article to pop up spoke of Quindaro. Every moment after that was a revelation about that town, a place created by the union of freed blacks, abolitionist whites, and Native Americans. I thought, people need to know of these amazing chapters in our history, times that remind us that "Yes we can, we can do this, too, here and now."
You're a co-founder of Crossroads Theatre Co. in New Jersey, which you've said is the "coming together of people from many backgrounds to try to create a whole new world." What type of world have you wanted to create with Crossroads?
Well, first, because through my parents I represent a number of world cultures, I grew up knowing myself as a citizen of the world, not just a child of my small block in Philly or Camden, New Jersey. This matters and always has because, as I've watched our American society develop, relationships between cultures tend to be more defined by the past than the hopes and promises of the future. Since the African-American experience is so rooted historically in a history of enslavement, mental and physical, my hope for the new world is to remove those definitions that are so based on being victim or victimizer, and instead discover new, more healthy foundations upon which we can relate to one another across culture lines. It's an easier thing to do when a person has a global perspective of himself or herself. When all you know of yourself is your block, your neighborhood, your people, you're missing out on the realization of your true power and the power of our society. So Crossroads, like the name implies, is about many roads merging in order to learn a new way, form a new way, and then move on, changed.
You've collaborated before with Ellis, on Fly (about the Tuskegee Airmen), which Crossroads Theatre staged in 2009 and was favorably reviewed by The New York Times (October 9, 2009). Is that the type of work originating at the Lincoln Center Institute, at Lincoln Center, where you're artist in residence? And could you talk about your work's educational goals?
I try to make my work always educational on some level because I believe so passionately in the need to learn more about ourselves and each other, not just from social media, films or TV but from the sharing of live experiences of community that only theater can do. But educating is not the driving force. The driving force is to tell a story and try to create great theater. Trey and I have been fortunate with Fly because LCI told us to do what we do and let them be the ones to be concerned with how to educate using the piece. So that's what we did. Fly just did phenomenally well at the Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., and will be in Cincinnati in September and at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in October [October 16–November 10; see repstl.org/season].
How does your work as a writer inform your work as a director, and vice versa?
I'm still trying to figure that one out. I'm a conceptualizer. And not too far from the mind of a director, I am influenced by metaphor, seeking the magic in symbolism and the power of words. Trey is great with language. And together, we somehow merge into a flow that has worked and been extremely enjoyable. Ultimately, it's about telling a story, creating magic onstage, and impacting an audience so that they are somehow a little different going out than they were coming in. To me, it takes both the writer and director in me to do that. And dividing those two heads, for me, would be like separating music from the lyric when the song you're singing has more to say than either one can give.