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The holiday season is a time of many traditions, of habits and celebrations that many people consider almost sacred. From The Nutcracker to It's a Wonderful Life, people gather to celebrate family, giving and goodwill.
And then there's the Unicorn Theatre.
Don't misunderstand me - the Unicorn Theatre is also about tradition and community. But their holiday offerings follow more in the vein of A Christmas Story than A Christmas Carol. The Unicorn often offers stories this time of year that skewer favorite Christmas traditions (as in The Santaland Diaries), or religious attitudes in general (such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You). Last year they even had the uniquely entertaining A Very Joan Crawford Christmas.
One of the more interesting traditions about the Unicorn's Christmas shows is that they usually star Kansas City's comedy savant, Ron Megee. Well, it's the holidays again, and Megee is back. But this time he's brought his spiritual sister, Missy Koonce.
Megee and Koonce were two of the masterminds behind the goofily subversive Late Night Theatre, which provided Kansas City with over-the-top, scandalous entertainment from 1997 to 2007 (I still have a reel of pornographic film that I won in a raffle in their early days at the Chelsea Theater). Ever since Late Night Theatre closed up shop, their pairings have been relatively rare. But this month, they are back together, taking on nobody less than Charles Dickens.
The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge is a rock 'n' roll update of A Christmas Carol. It was written in 1994, and the Unicorn first produced it in 1997, under the direction of Cynthia Levin (who is now enjoying her 33rd year as producing artistic director of the Unicorn). Eleven years later, Iggy Scrooge returns, with an updated look and new focus.
Upon arriving at the theater to discuss the past and present Scrooge with Koonce, Levin and Megee, I am greeted by a cheerful and dapper Megee. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart - the exact opposite of his lewdly madcap female impersonations that made him famous. As we sit down, Levin appears, almost as if by magic, from behind a curtain. Levin exudes a friendly, warm confidence that can only come from someone who, well, owns the place - not only the physical theater space that she has run for three decades, but also her own skin. Levin has an almost physical wisdom that permeates everything she does.
After Levin greets me, Megee announces that Koonce is running late - she is trapped in her driveway. I am slightly puzzled by this sentence, but Levin just nods understandingly. Apparently such events are natural consequences of being Missy Koonce.
Every time I have ever met Koonce, she has seemed to make an entrance with a small gust of wind, even if she's already indoors. Sure enough, about five minutes after we begin the interview, Koonce gusts through the door, a mysterious breeze blowing in from the hallway behind her.
"One-way streets are hard when there are airplane shuttle buses," Koonce announces by way of apology. She flips off her coat, gives us all a kiss, pulls up a chair and jumps right in to the conversation. That's the other thing about Koonce - she seems to need almost no transition time between activities.
Levin says that when she directed The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge 14 years ago, the focus was on the acting - the musical aspects took a back seat. However, Koonce, whose strength is ensemble musical productions, is directing the current production. Megee is caught between them: In Levin's production of Iggy Scrooge he played the Ghost of Christmas Past, Roy Orbison. In Koonce's version, he is playing the Ghost of Christmas Present, Elvis Presley.
Being in both productions of the show gives Megee a unique perspective on the differences in directing styles between Koonce and Levin. (I found it interesting that during the interview, Megee was actually sitting directly between the two.)
Megee tells me that the directors have opposite approaches. Levin starts with the details and then fits all the pieces together in the big picture toward the end. Koonce, however, finds the big picture first and then helps the actors fit into that. Or, as Megee summarizes it, "Cynthia nitpicks at the beginning of rehearsals. Missy nitpicks at the end."
But he says the differing styles don't change the quality of the end piece. "They both know how to get to the root of the characters and the issues. And they both understand my quirks, so I don't look like a fool."
When I ask Levin whether she had to grit her teeth watching the new production because she would have made different choices, she takes it in stride.
"As directors - and even as actors - we naturally compare what we see with what we would have done. The thing is, I make sure to surround myself with people I trust to do a good job, even if it's not the same way I would do it. It all works out that way."
Koonce agrees. "I mean, Cynthia is the artistic director of the theater. I depend on her to catch things I miss. Ultimately, she's in charge of making sure the show doesn't suck."
I ask Megee which character of this Scrooge story resonates with him most, now that he's played two of the ghosts. Megee pauses. When he speaks, his voice has dropped a bit. He says that while he does enjoy playing the ghosts, he really does relate best to the Scrooge character.
"I've been an ass in my life," Megee conceded. "It finally took friends and other people to show me the light. I've worked over the past few years to become a better person, so I can really relate to Iggy."
This insight gives Megee a certain emotional punch when portraying the ghosts that teach Scrooge his lesson. "At first you find the humor in these characters, but then you realize that they really are trying to shine a light on the situation."
Another new element for this production of Iggy Scrooge is that the Unicorn has partnered with UMKC students to help put it on. Koonce says she was excited to have so many designers working on the production; she's not used to such a big supporting crew.
However, this also has its challenges. "I usually work with the same people over and over, and after awhile they start to "get" me. I usually go on emotion and feelings. I know I won't need to explain myself - everybody just knows what I'm thinking and goes with it. But working with UMKC students has been a challenge, and it has been good for me. Because it makes me reassess my communication skills and I realize that not everybody can read my mind."
It's not just a new crew that Koonce is working with, but new actors as well.
"Since I have the same group of people I always go to, I enjoy the synergy we have. I can say, 'Ron, do that thing that I like that you do that would be appropriate in this place' and he'll say 'Oh yeah.' Or sometimes Ron will say 'Do you want that one thing, that I did in the...' and I'll just say, 'Yeah, that thing, but mix in a little bit of that other thing.' He'll understand. But I can't do that with the other actors."
Megee nods sagely at Koonce's description of their relationship. "The other day," he said, "some of the UMKC students were watching us intently, and a little later they asked me, 'What language were you two speaking?'" Megee laughs. "I replied, 'You know, brother-sister language.'"
Their "brother-sister language" is evident to anybody that watches them for more than five minutes. They are so in tune with each other that some people in Kansas City really do believe that they are siblings. And when I ask them when they actually met, they are not completely sure.
Officially, Koonce and Megee met in the mid-1980s, when they were students at Tarkio College in northwest Missouri. But having both grown up in the Kansas City metro area, they suspect that they actually met in high school, during one of the many parties that gay high school kids would throw themselves.
"We were the young '80s gays," Koonce explains. "We didn't have anywhere to go, so we would have parties in our parents' houses when they were gone, and people would drive from a 30-mile radius to get together."
Although Megee-Koonce pairings are depressingly rare, there are signs of coming changes. Koonce says that recently they have been talking about projects that they could start working on together again. Megee has a twinkle in his eye, but says they aren't ready for any official announcements yet.
And as for Levin, she's got her own plans for the future, other than her continuous hunting for the next season's plays. As readers may remember, the Unicorn completed a multi-year fundraising effort that resulted in the construction of a secondary stage on expanded Unicorn property in 2008. Despite the fact that it is only three years old, Levin is ready to tear out the seats and redo it.
"It needs to be more flexible," she says, with a sense of urgency in her voice. "We need to be able to set it up differently every time, in order to keep it exciting."
As Levin describes her vision for the next evolution of the Unicorn, Koonce suddenly leans forward in her chair and begins talking about how she wants to do a cabaret show there. The two visionary women talk about the possibilities of a more flexible theater space, throwing ideas back and forth to each other.
As they're doing this, I look over at Megee. He is sitting calmly between them, following their conversation with a small, amused smile on his face. Whatever they decide to do next, he knows he's also flexible enough to be a part of it.
Worldwide opera star Renée Fleming will perform in Kansas City on Thursday night, November 18, but the day before, she'll be part of a panel discussion for "Music and the Mind" — a conversation about how music affects the brain, cognitive development, healing and quality of life.
WHAT: Music and the Mind with Renée Fleming
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov 17, 2021
TIME: 4:00-5:30 PM
WHERE: The 1900 Building, 1900 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Mission Woods, KS, 66205
Music has a profound impact and the ability to shape 86 billion neurons in the brain for cognitive development, healing, and therapy. Science research has clearly shown that music therapy interventions can improve quality of life across nearly all neurological disorders. And there is tremendous public-interest in applying music to creative aging, childhood development, and community wellness.
But scientists want to know more.
Join soprano Renée Fleming and a distinguished panel of local Kansas City experts in neurology, music therapy, music and healing, and more for this cutting-edge discussion. Audience members will be able to participate in a Q&A following the panel discussion.
*Please note this Music and the Mind Event is not a musical performance*
As Artistic Advisor at Large to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Renée Fleming has spearheaded a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, with the participation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The Sound Health initiative explores and brings attention to research and practice at the intersection of music, health, and neuroscience. This collaboration has led to workshops at the NIH, and events and performances at the Kennedy Center. This initiative has also led the NIH to recently award $20 million dollars in funding for music and neuroscience research over five years.
As part of her advocacy, Fleming is also advisor to the recently launched NEA/UCSF Sound Health Network and co-chair of the Aspen Institute/Johns Hopkins NeuroArts Blueprint, both working to advance the field of arts and health.
This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Please call the Harriman-Jewell Series at 816-415-5025 to reserve your seat.
WHAT: Renée Fleming, soprano in recital
WHEN: Thursday, Nov 18, 2021
TIME: 7:00 PM
WHERE: Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
COST: Tickets from $25.00 *discounts available for students, educators, first responders, active duty military and veterans with valid I.D.
Pair a glorious voice with a winning personality and you have a diva for the ages. Renée Fleming is a longstanding Harriman-Jewell Series favorite. With her many television and Broadway appearances, Fleming has been embraced by music lovers of all genres.
Whether singing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Olympics, or Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, Renée Fleming represents opera to the world. In addition to her numerous operatic performances, Fleming often works classic show tunes and the Great American Songbook into her recitals. Fleming’s trademark rapport with audiences will give her Kansas City performance a warmth that is personal and sincere.
Rob Ainsley is pianist for the recital. His diverse career as a musician, conductor, educator, and administrator has taken him to top organizations and colleges from coast to coast. He now serves as Director of the Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artists and American Opera Initiative. Ainsley performed with Renée Fleming in The Metropolitan Opera’s August 2020 “Met Stars Live in Concert” that was streamed worldwide.
ABOUT THE HARRIMAN-JEWELL SERIES
Renée Fleming's recital will mark the 977th performance since the Series was founded in 1965. From free education events that allow interaction with musicians and dancers, to our free Discovery Concerts that are open to the community, the Harriman-Jewell Series continues to offer life-enriching opportunities for its community's youth and lifelong learners.
Whether you're spreading truth, information, or love, traveling abroad for humanitarian reasons can have risks. Detained American journalist in Myanmar, Danny Fenster, is to be released from jail, and to fly home soon. But it doesn't always end well for every foreign national attempting to do good in a foreign country.
The missionaries consisting of sixteen Americans and one Canadian kidnapped by the Haitian “400 Mawozo” gang on October 16, is extremely scary. The gang has threatened to kill the humanitarian Christians if a million dollar per person ransom is not fulfilled. The group consists of men, women, children and an eight-month-old baby.
These missionaries have sacrificed their time and paid their own way to go to the poorest place in the Western hemisphere to try to spread God’s love and save some souls. In turn, the missionaries are experiencing a nightmare like they’ve never imagined. They’re imprisoned and being threatened with a bullet in the head.
Most of us will never get over seeing journalists being beheaded and tortured in Syria and Iraq by the barbaric Islamic extremist group called ISIL. Burning people alive and beheading others were too graphic and gruesome to ever be forgotten.
Years ago, I traveled to a third world country on a “missionary trip” with others thinking it would be a nice break. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.
Sadly, the 17 missionaries in Haiti are undergoing a cruel experience that may end with the cost of their very lives. What are they thinking now? What is going through the minds of the little children who traveled to a world to help others and spread God’s love?
Haiti has been the site of years of humanitarian efforts. The United States and other countries have given billions of dollars to help Haiti. Sadly, hurricanes, political unrest, underdevelopment and extreme poverty have all made for a sad scenario.
How much money would the world have to give to Haiti to make life better for this nation? This is a question no one can answer because usually aid is a short-term solution. We spent a trillion dollars in Afghanistan and they aren’t any better off today.
Good missionary people went to Haiti with good hearts for helping others in the name of God’s love. They went to share a message they hoped would bring about change and better lives. They may now lose their lives.
Christians point to Jesus as the model for such missionary efforts. He came preaching and teaching in an effort to demonstrate and spread God’s love and it cost him plenty – his life, executed in public on a cross.
There are some Christians today who, like Jesus, are willing to risk their lives for the sake of others. Did these men and women literally go to Haiti taking their children with them truly believe they could be killed? Would they purposefully do this to their children? Who convinced these people that such a trip with small children was a good idea?
My goal here is to simply say, think about such trips to places like Haiti. Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Nigeria and numerous others countries are not vacation spots. Foreign travel may sound exotic and adventurous but consider the possible cost.
Many missionaries and Christian workers have paid the ultimate price in order to spread the gospel of Christ. Only eternity will reveal what their selfless sacrifice has meant to those whose lives they impacted.
By chance, if you decide such an international trip is not for you, don’t feel bad. Consider helping in an American inner city, Appalachia or maybe your own neighborhood. Service at home is needed across America.
Let’s pray for the safety of these missionaries and for those negotiating their release. May God help them and all who may consider such endeavors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Glenn Mollette is a graduate of numerous schools including Georgetown College, Southern and Lexington Seminaries in Kentucky. He is the author of 13 books including Uncommon Sense, Grandpa's Store, Minister's Guidebook: insights from a fellow minister. His column is published weekly in over 600 publications in all 50 states. Glenn Mollette has been on numerous International humanitarian and missionary group trips. Hear Glenn Mollette every weekday morning EST at 8:56 on XM radio 131. Editor-If you need to tweak or do a small edit for you paper or website that is okay. Please respond to this email if you need a picture for this column. Scroll down for additional biographical info. Buy his latest recording titled "Black Coffee" on iTunes. Learn more at www.glennmollette.com
The Black Trans Fund, incubated at Groundswell Fund, and Grantmakers for Girls of Color launched the Holding a Sister Initiative, the first-ever national fund explicitly dedicated to transgender girls and gender-expansive youth of color.
Dr. Monique W. Morris, president and CEO of Grantmakers for Girls of Color, and Bré Rivera, program director of the Black Trans Fund are together spearheading the Holding a Sister Initiative to bring attention and resources to organizations supporting trans girls of color, normalize concern and investment in their success, and create learning opportunities for cis and trans girls of color to move in deeper community with one another.
The initiative will award $1 million in grants in the first year, and will ultimately engage trans girls and gender-expansive youth of color in the decision-making process for selecting grantees on an ongoing basis.
While there has been an increase in donor attention to work led by people of color, it has yet to translate into significant gains in funding for trans and gender-expansive youth of color.
According to recent regional studies in Detroit, South Florida and New Orleans, trans women of color face higher levels of hunger, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and discrimination. At the same time, the majority of this year's record-breaking anti-trans legislation are targeted to affect youth, including bills that prevent transgender athletes from playing in school sports and the "Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act." Research has show sharp rises in suicide attempts among trans youth during 2020 and 2021.
"The reality is transgender and gender-expansive youth of color require more attention, and resources to interrupt the staggering intersections of trauma and crises they experience," said Bré Rivera.
The initiative joins existing funding intermediaries who have been leading the work to resource trans communities and engage trans people in the direction and distribution of resources, including the Third Wave Fund, the Black Trans Travel Fund, and Fund for Trans Generations. As funding partners, the Black Trans Fund and Grantmakers for Girls of Color aim to expand and transform philanthropy's investments in trans and gender-nonconforming youth. The initiative will move resources to organizations serving and led by trans girls and young women of color. It will also amplify narratives that elevate the humanity, dignity and leadership of trans and gender-expansive youth of color, as well as the ways their experiences and contributions have been overlooked, minimized and targeted by oppositional and systemic forces, and larger social justice movements.
The Holding a Sister Initiative will be led by a manager, who will steward culture change through grantmaking, capacity building, narrative shifting and philanthropic organizing. The position is currently open for applicants.
About Grantmakers for Girls of Color
Fiscally-sponsored by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Grantmakers for Girls of Color (G4GC) works to mobilize resources and amplify transformative organizing work to dismantle systems of oppression led by girls and gender-expansive youth of color. Grantmakers for Girls of Color openly invites partners and stakeholders to co-create an inclusive space in support of girls, young women, and gender-expansive youth of color across programmatic issues and geographic areas. Learn more by visiting Grantmakers for Girls of Color.
About the Black Trans Fund
The Black Trans Fund is a groundbreaking endeavor: the first national fund in the country dedicated to uplifting and resourcing Black trans social justice leaders. BTF seeks to address the lack of funding for Black trans communities in the U.S. through direct grantmaking, capacity building support, and funder organizing to transform philanthropy. Learn more by visiting Black Trans Fund.