"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."