New Play Seeks to Spark Conversation
The 1970 murder of a Kansas City civil rights activist, which was solved by two reporters from The Kansas City Star 41 years later, is the subject of a new play opening at the Rhynsburger Theatre this week. Leon Jordan was a co-founder of the Kansas City-based civil rights organization Freedom, Inc., a state legislator, and a police officer. He also owned the Green Duck Lounge at 26th and Prospect in Kansas City. Jordan was murdered outside the bar in 1970, and The Kansas City Star reporters ultimately linked his death to the mafia in their 2011 article. Then, in 2015, the latest owner of the Green Duck Lounge, Jimmy Townsend, who was in his 80s, was found murdered at his home a few blocks from the bar. His murder remains unsolved. Playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson, JD ’95, was encouraged to write about Leon Jordan by one of the reporters who solved Jordan’s murder, the late Mike McGraw. The play debuted in February 2017 as part of the Mizzou New Play Series. Assistant Professor Claire Syler, BA ’02 theatre, directed the stage reading.
“Michelle found the pairing of the murders of Jordan and Townsend fascinating and poignant in terms of the violence that has plagued the community, and plagued this space (Green Duck Lounge) in particular, and it made her think about what this space itself has witnessed over time as a material container for history,” Syler says. “She chose to write the play from the perspective of the place.”
Act I, The Play’s the Thing
The play unfolds at the bar in two time periods, opening with patrons mourning the murder of Townsend in 2015. During the scene, a policeman stops by the bar to collect evidence, sparking a heated conversation between an older black character and a young black character wearing a “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt about the relationship between the black community and law enforcement authorities. There also are numerous references to the murder of Jordan in 1970, and at the end of the scene, the play shifts in time to 1970. Now, instead of mourning a death, there is a pervasive sense of dread that something bad is about to happen. The actor portraying a Black Lives Matter activist in 2015 now portrays a Black Panther, and he tries to convince Jordan they should work together to foster change. Throughout the scene, Jordan receives three threats to his life, and the audience later learns that was the day Jordan was murdered.
Syler says funding from Mizzou Advantage; the Division of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity; and the Missouri Arts Council allowed the Department of Theatre to hire an Equity actor (a member of the Actors’ Equity Association) from Kansas City, Harvey Williams, to portray Jordan.
“It has been such a gift for our young people to work with him,” Syler says. “Learning through apprenticeship opportunities has always been part of our field, and working with older, more-experienced actors is one of the primary ways we get better.”
Williams says he’s been very impressed by the students he has had an opportunity to work with. “Essentially it’s their energy level and their dedication in bringing a new work to the stage—not every actor gets that opportunity,” Williams says. “Working with young actors dedicated and anxious to present meaningful performance motivates and rejuvenates an old fuddy-duddy like myself. It keeps you young.”
Williams says the play is educational as well as entertaining because Johnson weaves a lot of history about the politics, crime, and community conditions into the narrative. “This work illustrates how the beat goes on, exemplified by the activist movements referred to, from the Black Panthers and Freedom Inc., to Black Lives Matters and the grass roots voting efforts of today—it’s the same dynamic,” Williams says.
Act II, Time to Talk
Following each evening’s performance, a group of panelists will lead the audience members in a post-production talk back. Johnson will serve as moderator each night, and Williams, who co-founded KC MeltingPot Theatre company, will serve as a panelist each night. Other panelists will include Glenn Rice, one of The Kansas City Star reporters who solved Jordan’s murder; Gary Kremer, director of the State Historical Society of Missouri; journalism Professor Ernest Perry; history Professor Keona Ervin; and Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the Department of Black Studies.
“It will allow us to connect some historical events to our present-day discussions about race and racism,” Shonekan says. “It will help us think about how what we are seeing now is not exclusive to this time—these things go back to our Founding Fathers and slavery and the ways in which race was constructed.” Shonekan admits these discussions can be difficult, but says “we can have them if we have some piece of art to look at to inspire the conversation, or some musical composition, or a theatrical production that can open some valves so we can enter that space of conversation.”
Syler says when she originally envisioned the project, she wanted to include a discussion about the play. She says talk backs typically involve actors and designers discussing their work on stage, but she wanted these discussions to remain focused on the issues in the play.
“Discussing the mechanics of the play’s production is less important to me because the whole mission of this production has been to talk about two things: Missouri civil rights history and anti-black racism,” Syler says. She says she hopes the students who perform and those in the audience learn to not be afraid to talk about uncomfortable subjects like racism.
“I want us to be willing to engage with it. We can have critical conversations, and we can move forward,” she says. “It starts by talking—talking itself can be a form of action.”
The Green Duck Lounge will run Feb. 21 – 24 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Feb. 25 at 2:00 p.m. in the Rhynsburger Theatre on the MU campus.