Fairyland Park kept out Black Kansas Citians. A world premiere play tells their story
Playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson calls “Only One Day a Year,” making its world premiere this week at The Coterie, a “hometown story by a hometown girl.” But she says it also carries a universal message.
“It’s a Kansas City play, where the references are things anybody from Kansas City, or at least older people, will get,” Johnson said. “But because of the nature of the play and what it’s talking about, it could be in any city in America.”
The drama tells two tales in tandem, following the fictional Rose James as a teen during the very real segregated days of the 1960s at Fairyland Park and decades later when her granddaughter, Ella, is dealing with a controversy at her school.
“I’m so excited, because it’s so important for people to not go to sleep on their history,” Johnson said.
The Coterie, consistently rated one of the nation’s top theaters for young audiences, commissioned the play. It is co-directed by Sidonie Garrett, executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, and Teresa Leggard, who also is one of the seven cast members.
Leggard said some of her cast mates come from families with long histories in Kansas City and with recollections of Fairyland, which once stood at 75th Street and Prospect Avenue.
“One of the most rewarding things has been when cast members have talked about the play with their families at home,” she said. “Then they come into rehearsal and share these revelations — memories, personal stories and family histories about Fairyland.
“It’s a reminder that what we’re calling history wasn’t long ago at all. I hope audiences will have the same kinds of conversations at home after the show.”
‘Piece of history’
Johnson, a fourth-generation Kansas City, Kansan, attended St. Teresa’s Academy and has a journalism degree from the University of Kansas and a law degree from the University of Missouri. Now a producer at a public radio station in Louisville, Kentucky (she formerly worked at Kansas City’s KCUR), she has written three books and too many plays to count.
Her works have been produced from coast to coast, including locally at the KC Melting Pot Theatre and Olathe Civic Theatre Association, with readings at the Unicorn Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
She drew from personal experience for “Only One Day a Year,” which refers to an old Fairyland policy that permitted Black people admission to the amusement park only on one specific day each year. When she was a child, her mother refused to take her to Fairyland because of that earlier segregation.
After years of protests and lawsuits, Fairyland opened to Black people in 1964. That same year, Kansas City voters approved a referendum desegregating public facilities, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former mayor of Kansas City, said in a release, “I applaud The Coterie for producing ‘Only One Day a Year,’ because it may inspire younger and even unborn Kansas Citians to build rather than botch race relations now and later.”
Playwright Johnson says the play is “serious but not heavy.”
“Discrimination is always heavy, but the way I handle it is the way I handle most things I write about,” she said. “It’s the heavy combined with, I don’t want to say humorous, but accessible.
“I look at my fiction writing as a Trojan horse. You pay the ticket to be entertained. … Then, booya, what jumps out of the Trojan horse. A point. A perspective. A piece of history. Dropping some knowledge.”
Calling the play “a drama with some metaphysical elements to it,” Johnson said “Only One Day a Year” is fictional. The narrative alternates between young Rose, who struggles with Fairyland’s segregation, and adult Rose, who teams with her granddaughter to shine a light on an injustice at her school.
The Coterie bills “Only One Day a Year” as appropriate for ages 9 and up. “It’s not a little, little kid play, but it’s young adult,” Johnson said. “I think older younger kids will like it.”
“Only One Day a Year” received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It also was one of six plays selected for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ New Visions/New Voices in 2020, which included a scheduled reading at the biennial New Visions/New Voices festival in Washington, D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped that out, as well as the play’s original September 2020 world premiere at The Coterie.
In the interim, Garrett and Leggard took over as co-directors.
“It’s been put off so long because of COVID, it’s frustrating,” Garrett said. “But we’re back.”
Garrett, who will direct the Heart of America Festival’s “The Tempest” in June at Southmoreland Park, has worked with Johnson on other plays. She says they developed a “mutual trust,” which is important in the telling of this story of a Black family.
“We’re feeling … their pain, their frustration, their anger, all of it,” Garrett said. “We get to see that expressed, and I think that’s important.”
(This will be the first play to open at The Coterie since the death of Jeff Church, the theater’s longtime producing artistic director who died by suicide in December after being accused of sexually abusing young men for years.)
Seeing ‘Only One Day a Year’
“Only One Day a Year” at The Coterie theater in Crown Center will begin with daytime previews Jan. 31-Feb. 3, with the official opening at 7 p.m. Feb. 3. The show will run through March 5. Tickets ($12-$15) are available at thecoterie.org.