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Investigative journalism finds a new outlet: the stage

Two jail guards, played by Frank Oakley III (left) and Chris Roady, fight after arguing over the fatal 1988 explosion in Kansas City at the heart of the play “Justice in the Embers” by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “Story Works.” (Brian Paulette)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The two uniformed jail guards argued angrily, cursed each other, then erupted into a nasty brawl with punches and furniture and bodies flying. As the fight ended and the guards skulked away to lick their wounds, a breathless audience of about 100 people looked on.

The violent eruption wasn’t in a jail. It was on the stage of The Living Room theater in Kansas City, and it was the latest example of an innovative new approach to investigative journalism: put a controversial story on stage and dramatize it for audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues at stake and the discoveries made by traditional news media.

The Kansas City production, “Justice in the Embers,” is the latest example of the collaboration called “StoryWorks,” launched by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit journalistic organization, and the Bay Area’s Tides Theater group. The ways of investigative journalism have changed little since the days of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell — a reporter works and digs and writes a story for months or years, then publishes or broadcasts it and…hopes for the best. Hopes that the public, or the government, is moved or outraged enough to take action. And if not, the story settles quietly into the archives. Though multi-media techniques have improved the presentation of investigative stories, they still reach mostly an audience of dedicated news consumers, and rarely much more.

In 2012, a conversation between Joaquin Alvarado, head of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Jennifer Welch, artistic director of the Tides group, started as a discussion of “figuring out a way to cross-pollinate our audiences,” Welch said. As they talked, “it became really clear that we could do something that had more depth,” Welch said. “We came up with several stories that would possibly be great pieces of theater.”

The CIR regularly produces in-depth journalism that appears in newspapers and TV programs around the country. In 2013, the joint project “StoryWorks” was launched with a play based on a CIR story about homeless women veterans living on skid row in Los Angeles. Next, another CIR expose, about the abuses at an infamous housing project in Richmond, Calif., also hit the stage. Welch soon moved from Tides to CIR to take on the StoryWorks project full-time.

“It’s been very emotional,” Welch said of the half-dozen plays StoryWorks has done. Real people — and real heartache — are not only depicted but present in the audience, watching their stories brought to life. “We’ve tried to break the conventions of theater,” Welch said, “so people felt that we weren’t just dramatizing their life, that we were telling their story with accuracy. It allowed people to relax and experience it without being overwhelmed.” The plays are low-budget, with minimal props and effects, and typically last about an hour, with time reserved after each performance for an audience “Talk Back” with not only the actors and producers but the actual subjects of the stories.

In Kansas City, Janet Saidi, vice president of public television station KCPT, heard a CIR staffer discuss StoryWorks at a conference and thought of reporter Mike McGraw and the 1988 deaths of six firefighters. The firefighters were hosing down a blazing tractor trailer near a south Kansas City highway early one morning when it exploded, instantly killing them. The force of the blast cracked home foundations and awoke a city to horrific tragedy, but the deadly arson went unsolved for years. Then in 1997, five local residents were tried and convicted based solely on the testimony of neighborhood and jailhouse informants whose information conflicted. There was no physical evidence and no witnesses. All five defendants, including one who was 17 at the time of the blast, were sentenced to life without parole. One has died in prison.

McGraw, a nationally known investigative journalist with The Kansas City Star, began digging into the case in 2006, and his reporting led to federal authorities revisiting the investigation and the witnesses who said they had lied. A 20-page report was issued by the Justice Department  in 2011, but entire pages were blacked out. The report said two other suspects may have been involved, but the case would not be reopened. Those redacted documents are reproduced in the program for the Story Works play on the case, “Justice in the Embers.”

McGraw retired from The Star and moved to KCPT, but he told Saidi the story still haunted him. “I knew we were looking for a different way of doing this story,” she said. She contacted CIR and StoryWorks, which hadn’t collaborated with an outside newsroom, but knew of McGraw and his work. They agreed last year, and “it’s better than we would have hoped. Our big goal, on the journalism side, was to foster awareness of the issues. Our organizational goal was to interact face-to-face with audiences that wouldn’t usually see public television.”

Playwright Michelle T. Johnson, a former journalist and lawyer, was enlisted in October to write the play, and had a deadline of late November. And though the explosion was 27 years ago, and the trial 18 years ago, there were still new developments: the Supreme Court had ruled that 17-year-old defendants may not be given mandatory life without parole sentences. Defendant Bryan Sheppard was brought back to Kansas City for a possible resentencing. Then another case questioned whether that ruling was retroactive, putting Sheppard in limbo. A week before the play opened earlier this month, the Supreme Court opined again: its ruling was retroactive, giving Sheppard a resentencing and a shot at freedom after 18 years in prison. Johnson scrambled to rewrite her ending, which has Sheppard receiving a fax with the good news.

To provide the exposition of the issues uncovered by McGraw’s journalism, Johnson created the two fictional jail guards to discuss the case, making arguments for both guilt and innocence. Johnson also created an unnamed firefighter, who discusses the perils of the profession as well as the lasting psychic scars that marked Kansas City after the explosion. “My natural inclination,” Johnson said, “is to be fair, to write in a way that allows folks to be invited into what I’m trying to express. If it’s one-sided, it’s alienating…I did not want this to come off as an ‘After-School Special.’ I needed it to feel authentic.”

In recent years in prison, Sheppard has embraced his Native American heritage, and his part is played by Moses Brings Plenty, an Oglala Lakota actor who met with Sheppard several times. Through various scenes, one of Sheppard’s guards becomes convinced of his innocence, while another, from a long line of firefighters, is disgusted by him. Sheppard’s mother Virgie and lawyer Cyndy Short are also portrayed meeting with him, discussing his options and his future.

The 100-seat theater in downtown Kansas City has been sold-out or nearly so at almost every performance. The case, and its questions of whether five people were wrongly convicted, continues to roil the town. McGraw said the play has brought new attention and energy to the case. Neighbors and friends of Sheppard and the other four defendants — his uncles Frank and Skip Sheppard, Frank’s girlfriend Darlene Edwards, and Sheppard’s friend Richard Brown — have been in every audience.

Virgie Sheppard said the portrayal of her by actor Nancy Marcy was “a damn good job.” She said a friend told her she couldn’t tell the actor from the real thing. “I thought it was really good,” she said after watching a performance. “Bryan’s done a complete turn-around, he really has.” She said he has hope for the future, “for the first time in a long time,” though he feels it is unfair for him to possibly be released but not his co-defendants.

While the play has something of an upbeat ending, “I’m scared to have hope,” Sheppard said. She has been disappointed before, at various stages of the prosecution and appeals. “I’m really scared.”

After “Justice in the Embers” finishes its three-week run in Kansas City, the cast and crew will move to San Francisco for another series of performances, further spreading the original investigative work to new audiences.

Note: I covered this case for The Kansas City Times and Star from the explosion in 1988 through the trial in 1997 and participated in the “Talk Back” after a performance last week.