Follow the Drinking Gourd The way the show is described -- a "charming story set in the era of slavery" -- sounds uncomfortably akin to Condoleezza Rice's recent testimony that the tsunami in Southeast Asia was "a wonderful opportunity" to ameliorate America's reputation as a bully. Whoops. Nevertheless, it's Paul Mesner Puppets' good intention to honor Black History Month with a character named Peg Leg Joe who travels to many plantations, ostensibly to teach slaves to sing. The title song, though, is a coded message revealing an escape route out of Alabama and Mississippi to the more benign North. Feb. 2-6 and Feb. 9-13 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St., 816-235-6222.
Frederick Douglass: Deliverance From Chains Gene Mackey's memory play is about the title character's journey from slave to statesman. The drama is set in a re-creation of Douglass' final home in Washington, D.C., where the civil rights pioneer (Danny Cox) reminisces with Helen Pitts (Sheryl Bryant), his second wife, and a group of young history buffs. Among the themes he addresses are abolition, black employment obstacles and the controversy surrounding his marriage to Pitts, who happened to be white. Through Feb. 20 at Theatre for Young America, 5909 Johnson Drive in Mission, 913-831-2131.
Mamma Mia! Hordes of theatergoing baby boomers find this kitschy confection, which cakes a flimsy soap opera around a couple of dozen Abba songs, Abba-lutely enchanting. And I have to admit that upon my first exposure in 1999, when it was still in previews in London, it evoked the sugar-free high of chugging a six-pack of Fresca. It was in later productions that the fizz settled at the bottom of the glass. If oddly forced arrangements of "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" and "Dancing Queen" crossed with the recent reality show Who's Your Daddy? is your kind of beverage, sip away. February 8-13 at the Music Hall at Municipal Auditorium, 13th St. and Baltimore, 816-931-3330.
The Molire One Acts Sganarelle is the hottest name on the street -- well, at least the streets around the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theater Department and Union Station, where the latter's City Stage Theatre hosts the former's celebration of Moliere's most lovable rogues. In "The School for Husbands," Sganarelle is a 17th-century bourgeois prig and misogynist whose interest in a young lady isn't returned. The same name is given to a loutish and paranoid married man of the provinces in "The Imaginary Cuckold." Though both were written between 1660 and 1662, the pieces confirm why Moliere's romantic entanglements could be outtakes from Jen Chen's Night Ranger column. Through Feb. 12 at the UMKC Theater Department at Union Station's H&R Block City Stage Theatre, 816-460-2020 or 816-235-6222.
Permanent Collection If a white man finds the art made by old, dead, white Europeans more important than that produced by Africans, does that make him a racist? The argument's outcome isn't so obvious as Thomas Gibbons proposes it in his intriguing new play. Though there's much to chew on in its debates about social change and racial inclusiveness, the play periodically flirts with melodrama, and some of the cast play types rather than living, breathing humans. Dean Vivian, though, is excellent as a nebbishy white guy whose loyalty to tradition gets him branded a racist. Through Feb. 13 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, 816-531-7529.
Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise and Futz The theory holds that, as Washington, D.C., goes all conservative and uptight, ballsy theater companies migrate toward the polar opposite. Recall performance artist Karen Finley, who was much more famous as a disempowered National Endowment for the Arts artist under the Republicans' thumb than a struggling artist circa Bill Clinton. Lawrence's EMU Theatre offers the first "fuck you" of Bush's second term with two edgy pieces. The late Harry Kondolean's Self Torture is an existential screwball comedy about people isolated by their perceptions of the universe (written way before blue state vs. red state stuff). Rochelle Owens' 1967 avant-garde classic Futz is about a man who falls head over heels for a pig. Feb 11-13 and Feb. 18-20 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire, 785-843-2787.
Two Trains Running Playwright August Wilson is just one decade shy of his century-spanning 10-pack of plays about the African-American experience between 1900 and 2000. His newest effort, Gem of the Ocean (which this week closes on Broadway), covers 1900-10 and just closed on Broadway, and his take on the 1960s, Two Trains Running, opens this week at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Some feel that the play, set around the razing of a restaurant to make way for gentrification, is Wilson's most soulful and personal. Directed by Lou Bellamy of St. Paul, Minnesota's Penumbra Theatre, the show will follow its Rep run with performances at the historic Gem Theatre on 18th Street. Through Feb. 13 at the Kansas City Rep, 4949 Cherry, and Feb. 17-20 at the Gem, 1601 E. 18th St.; 816-235-2700 for both venues.
York Add to the list of artistic productions prompted by the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition this one-man show about the largely forgotten black man who became one of the team's most important assets. York was both slave and protector to Clark, especially in the explorers' dicey interactions with the Native American tribes they encountered. Written by local theater veteran Brad Shaw and starring Lorenzo Hughes in the title role, the show traces York's life from boyhood on the Clark plantation to his eventually successful quest for freedom. Feb. 8-9, and Feb. 15-16 at the Gem Theater, 1615 E. 18th St., 816-474-0888.