When it came to directing a new play called “Canaan,” Sheila Kinnard drew on personal experience.
The play portrays tumultuous events that took place in Washington, D.C. in 1968. As a high school student that year, Kinnard visited Howard University in the nation’s capital and saw student protesters occupy a building. Kinnard transferred to the historically black university in 1971, when memories of ’68 were still fresh.
“It (the play) resonates with me because I lived it and I realize the impact it had on my life,” Kinnard said.
“Canaan,” which runs April 1-3 at the Crown Uptown Theater, is the first play to be produced by The Kansas African American Museum. It was written by Micah Ariel Watson, a 2014 graduate of Wichita Collegiate School and the daughter of C. Edward and Gidget Watson. She wrote the play in 2018 while attending the University of Virginia, where she’s now an artist in residence at the Democracy Initiative.
The play has been performed in workshops but this is its first full staging. Kinnard, who knows Watson, was asked by the museum to direct.
“I read the script and I was hooked,” Kinnard said.
“Canaan” is described as a teenager’s coming-of-age story during a period of the Civil Rights movement when generations of Washington, D.C. residents were forced to decide where their loyalties lay.
Its Wichita cast includes a mix of older and younger actors and at least one newcomer. Shirley Smith, who works in human resources at Healthcore Clinic, has acted in productions at the Wichita Center for the Arts, Mary Jane Teall Theater, local churches and the Wichita River Festival. Her desire to perform waned after her husband’s death and she had not been in a play for eight or nine years. “But you never really lose the desire,” she said, adding that she was intrigued when “Canaan” came along.
“I think I can relate to the time, that era along with the present. I love the idea of the diversity of the cast, for someone my age to be involved. They (young actors) are picking up a lot from us as well. It is a total African American production and I love that.”
Gregory Cole has his first acting role in “Canaan.” Cole, who served 25 years in the military, is well-known around Wichita from selling his Little Bits gourmet cookies at farmers markets. He also teaches in the culinary arts program at Butler Community College and a leadership course at Southwestern College.
Asked why he wanted to be in the play he said, “I just wanted to challenge myself to do something new and different. I do standup comedy and I am finding this is a greater reach, a greater challenge for me.” Cole called the story “well thought out and provocative, to say the least.”
It’s Kinnard’s first turn as director of a professional production. She taught drama for 17 years at Mayberry Cultural Fine Arts Middle Magnet School and has acted in productions at the Crown, Roxy’s, the Forum and Music Theater of Wichita.
Denise Sherman, executive director of the museum, said the play fits with TKAAM’s mission of telling African American history. “We wanted to explore all avenues of telling the story. Performing arts is one we have not done on this caliber and scale.”
Originally planned for the spring of 2020, the play was pushed back until now by the pandemic. The museum may stage future plays depending on this one is received.
Sherman said the interaction between cast members during rehearsals at TKAAM caught her attention. “It has been very enlightening just listening to them talk back and forth about current events, what has changed and what has not. It has been delightful to see the bridges built between the two generations.”
Kinnard said for many African Americans what happened in 1968 is a pivotal point in their lives, just as young people today tell her Sept. 11 is a defining moment for them.
“The play really brings to life the music, the words and the actions of the events happening in the late 1960s and in many ways still happening today with racial injustice and the community caring or not caring for each other. The community needs to care for each other and value each other.” The play, she said, shows the push and pull between religion and activism, love and angst.
“Our audience will be able to relate to one or another of these characters and their stories, whether it is a young person or an older person who lived through that time,” she said.
Tickets are available at crownuptown.com. They may also be purchased at the Crown Uptown box office and over the telephone by calling 316-612-7696 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
The April 1 performance includes small plates and a cash bar, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and the play at 8 p.m. Tickets $40 and $45. The April 2 performance features a prime rib dinner with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the play at 8 p.m. Tickets are $100 and $125. The April 3 performance has a Southern fried dinner, with doors opening at noon and the play at 2 p.m. Tickets are $65 and $80. Watson, the playwright, will speak after Saturday’s show.