When I heard that the Barn Players would be staging the rock musical Hair in September, Fred Phelps didn’t exactly rocket to mind. His ideology seems solar systems away from the free-love hippies that stunned Broadway crowds in 1968 by walking out into the audience, getting naked on stage, and performing while high.
But Hair director Phil Kinen draws an intriguing comparison.
“Hair takes an extremely left view of the United States Constitution. And you could almost argue that Fred Phelps did the exact thing that Hair is doing, only to the right,” Kinen said. “It tests the Constitution. Everything Fred Phelps did … is all about testing the First Amendment of the United States. Hair questions everything.”
The show’s joyous skepticism leaks into the dramatic structure of the play. The plot resists a synopsis, but it’s the story of a group of young hippies in the ’60s. Known as The Tribe, they live in New York and joyously reject the Vietnam War, their conservative parents, and a repressive American society. Which leads to the onstage nudity and drugs.
“The first thing we asked is ‘Are we going to do the nudity?’ They said, ‘If you don’t, then you can’t do Hair,’” said Kinen of his early conversations with the Barn Players team.
Located in Mission, the Barn Players are another thrilling example of how theater is blooming all over the metro. This community theater in a conservative suburb is doing Hair, and it’s refusing to tame it.
“They’re having to break all kinds of rules for this show. … No cutting of the script, no cutting of words, no cutting anything.”
Prisca Kendagor, a local actress and playwright, who plays Emmaretta, knows this show is built to jar. “What the hell did we just see?” she says, laughing as she impersonates audience members on their way out of a performance. “I had done [Hair> one other time. It was one of those life-changing shows for me. It has such a powerful message. It’s a group of young people that are in a crappy situation and they’re mad. And they’re doing something about it.”
When asked whether doing the show would affect her work as a playwright, she replied, “It already has. For example …. Tha Agapthei, that I’m working on right now, is a very rock musical. … Hair was the beginning of all those other shows. Before, it was lots of Rodgers and Hammersteins. Very upbeat, straitlaced. Hair was the first one to take that and put it on its head.”
Since it opened, Hair has overturned tables. Its so-called obscenities landed the show before the U.S. Supreme Court. As the show began touring the country, bomb threats awaited it. In Cleveland, an arsonist set fire to the hotel in which the cast was staying in 1971. Two cast members’ wives and their two infants were among the dead.
Even though Hair survived these attacks and came back to win a Tony for Best Musical Revival in 2009, Kinen feels that its urgency still reverberates.
“And don’t think this doesn’t apply to equality,” he said. “Shit, man. Gay rights right now. Blacks, Asians, Chicanos. Do they have the same rights as whites do? Don’t tell me that we are a free and equal America yet.”
In fact, queer audiences will find a lot of narrative entry points in Hair. “People don’t really realize it on the surface, but half of the characters in the play are homosexuals,” Kinen said. “The two lead characters are having an affair. Back then it was all about free love. It didn’t matter who you were fucking. It was the age of free love. Of experimentation. Of being yourself. In the original audiences, the cast would come out and ask ‘Who’s black? Who’s homosexual? Who smokes marijuana? Who smokes pot?’”
The Barn Players’ production of Hair belongs on your fall cultural to-do list. It’s got enough fire in its belly to warm you for the winter, not that your comfort is the show’s priority. Kinen and his gutsy cast want you to sing along to “Age of Aquarius,” of course. But if you leave merely on a rock musical sugar-high, you weren’t paying attention.
Hair runs Friday, Sept. 19-Sunday, Oct. 5 at the Barn Players, 6219 Martway, Mission, Kan. Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m.