Culture wars were raging. The National Endowment for the Arts was under threat. A conservative senator from a southern state was earning his reputation as a "prominent unabashed white racist." Protesters were hitting the streets.
"It was a really interesting time," Mark Manning says of the early 1990s. "Similar to now."
The situation demanded a creative response. So Manning and two coworkers — Ron Megee and Janice Woolery — started a Monday-night spoken word series at Café Lulu, chef/author Lou Jane Temple's now-legendary restaurant on 39th Street (in the spot now occupied by the Taj Palace Indian restaurant).
"We found people who were interested in writing original stuff and going on stage and questioning authority," Manning remembers.
Their readings, skits and songs were pointed and irreverent, some highly scripted and wittily costumed. Performers mined Kansas City current events for just as much humor as whatever was happening in Washington. It was like watching a scrappy local version of "Saturday Night Live."
"Each week, people would come back with new material," Manning says. "Some of those people ended up collecting enough material to write whole shows."
They decided to branch out to other venues and named themselves Big Bang Buffet. Their first show, in September 1990, was well-timed: The American Medical Association was in town for a convention at the old Barney Allis Hotel (now the Marriott), and ACT-UP demonstrators from all over the country had come to Kansas City to protest the medical industry's response to the AIDS epidemic.
"There was a die-in in the streets in front of the hotel and people got arrested," Manning remembers. "As part of that day, there was a performance-art party and post-demonstration bash at Club Cabaret. That was our first show. These ACT-UP people from San Francisco and New York were really surprised to find there was a performance-art scene in Kansas City. We were thrilled to be able to say, 'Yes there is!'"
They created something in Kansas City, Manning says.
"We called it performance art, which is what I believe it was, and is, but we also had music, poetry, film, dance. It was always original," Manning says. "All of this was before there was a Fringe Festival, before the Charlotte Street Foundation, before ArtistINC. There really was no support system for what we were doing."
So it was DIY.
Manning had come out of the theater world, but writing and performing in a restaurant, or a gay bar, "changed the rules," he says.
"You don’t have to wait to be cast in a play, or have someone open a door for you. We can make our own venue, create our own shows, have a pipeline so people can produce."
Big Bang Buffet continued until 2005, with performances at legit theaters such as the Unicorn and The American Heartland and Just Off Broadway, but also at art galleries, churches, a bookstore, in Southmoreland Park and a community center in Kansas City, Kansas. Their performances benefited ACT-UP/KC, the Good Samaritan Project, SAVE Inc., Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and many other organizations.
Meanwhile, Manning went on to host radio programs at KKFI 90.1 FM and create and coordinate the KCK Organic Teaching Gardens. Megee founded Late Night Theatre. Woolery left the performance scene, but other core members went on to careers in the arts. Lisa Cordes has been a leader for several area arts non-profits and is now director of ArtistINC. Beth Marshall moved to Orlando, Florida in 1995 and became producing/artistic director of Orlando Fringe Festival before starting her own theater company.
It was the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Marshall's new hometown that started many of them talking about the need, once again, to respond to current events.
"Big Bang Buffet had done so many shows in gay bars. We knew what it felt like to be in a gay bar at 2 in the morning," Manning says. "Then the election solidified the idea."
So, eleven years after its last show, Big Bang Buffet returns with "Black Sheep Rising." Among the twenty artists slated to perform are several making trips back to town: Marshall from Orlando; Jon "Piggy" Cupit from Austin; B.J. McBride from Chicago; and Amy Britain from Rochester, Minnesota. The old crew will be joined by younger up-and-comers such as musician Calvin Arsenia, poet Jen Harris and artist Ryan Wilks.
"They're kind of like we were twenty years ago, with the same spirit of making things happen for themselves," Manning says.
Though Cordes has continued to perform small pieces "here and there," participating in a Big Bang Buffet show, she says, "first and foremost makes me feel old. We were much younger people when we did this on a regular basis."
But it feels necessary, she says.
"I think everybody feels a lot of stress right now about the current environment, especially anybody who is at all marginalized," she says. "It's really important to be together with each other, and experience community that's not digital, but in-person and live. Even if it's only preaching at the choir, how else will the choir know when to sing?"
Cordes says her piece will take on the current political situation, most likely through her usual lens of gender.
"Unless we nuke North Korea between now and Tuesday night," she says, not joking.
Megee says he's both excited and nervous to participate in a reunion of people who taught him "it's OK to be a bohemian." He says that's what his piece will be about.
"I’m going to do a little performance-art piece about what came out of meeting these people at the time. What’s really weird is the political climate is worse than it was at that time, but it’s interesting that we’re getting back together in this moment. This group – we rally well in times of crisis."
What he learned from his time with Big Bang Buffet is that when groups with similar thoughts and beliefs get together, they can make change, Megee says.
"I’m hoping that this spurs younger people, if they come to watch it, to realize that through song, performance art, silly high drag, you can make people start opening their minds, or feel there are safe places. That's what I always thought with Big Bang Buffet: It was a safe place to express ourselves and just be wild and scream if we had to."
Now that many of the things they were screaming about have returned with a vengeance, Manning has wisdom for younger artists as well as Big Bang Buffet's original audience.
"Life is a cycle. Maybe it's because I’ve been working in gardening for so many years with kids, and that’s what I tell the kids: There is a cycle of life," he says. "For me, it’s just: Go do it. Don’t wait for somebody to give you permission."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.