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With Slammed!, the UMKC Theatre Department hits back at the recession

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Last fall, Stephanie Roberts, a UMKC Theatre Department professor, dispatched her students into the city to collect stories about how people were faring in this recession. The result is Slammed!, an extraordinary achievement of community reporting and ensemble creation. Its power doesn't derive from any singular voice or revelation but from the steady accumulation of both.

Actors speak the words of actual Kansas Citians, telling stories both happy and sad, sometimes arranged in clever contrast: As a Brookside ad man (Zachary Andrews) agonizes over his financial collapse, Will Bowen (played by Eric Graves), the lead minister at One Community Spiritual Center, spouts shift-your-paradigm poison, insisting that the recession has no victims, just volunteers. After offering some ass-covering sympathy for those who have volunteered themselves out of jobs, he concludes, "If this person has not built some contingency fund or something like that, then they asked for it."

And then, just when you're furious, a song breaks out. Or the ensemble arranges itself into a panorama of hard-times misery. There's even a pay-it-forward fantasy sequence in which Kansas Citians pass along a mystical arrow for luck.

Not all of this works, but most of it does, especially the patient piling on of voices and truths. For their dedication to serious reporting — to listening, to offering context — the cast members deserve commendation, especially now, in the twilight of institutional journalism. For all the pathos here, there's pleasure, too, most notably the all-too-rare chance to see our neighbors' real lives represented in a visual medium without those neighbors having to kill someone first.

See Slammed! if you want to meet the HR woman from National Car Rental who can see "directly to the dollar" how much business is lost with each Sprint layoff. Or the Sprint marketing employee so polite and Midwestern that she chirps "I'm OK! I'm OK!" to the woman who fired half the department. Or an executive who asks to "reorganize" his company, only to be laid off once he's finished. Or that Brookside ad man, David, whose business flourished until his clients' loans dried up. In recent years, David has lost his company, his home, his wife. "You've become a dumbass," she told him. "You used to have all of this money — what in the hell happened to you?"

See Slammed! if you wonder what the hell happened, period. Roberts' young reporters have gathered answers from such experts as Michael Duffy, of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, who offers help to low-income families, and Stephen Pruitt, a UMKC professor of finance.

Like the rest of the narrative, Pruitt's and Duffy's explanations come in counterpoint, but consensus emerges. Freed up by the Community Reinvestment Act, banks lent money to borrowers who couldn't possibly keep up with the payments, often under near usurious terms. Banks such as Goldman Sachs then bundled and sold many of these subprime loans to investors in places as far away as China and Norway, and the investors seemed only to have realized in 2007 that much of the debt would never be paid. This sparked the credit crunch. Unable to refinance, borrowers in Kansas City defaulted. Houses went into foreclosure, and now, because the bondholders are half a world away and really don't give a shit, our neighborhoods are pocked with empty houses.

This explanation never gets dry or difficult to follow, but to be on the safe side, the UMKC ensemble has whipped up a sprightly "Schoolhouse Rock"-style number that makes all the salient points. The cast also presents moving testimony from folks at the Hope House for Battered Women, the Kansas City Free Health Clinic, Hillcrest Transitional Housing and others. A professor of costume design describes working four jobs, even though she has a Harvard degree and a résumé listing jobs in Europe and Asia.

The funny Grant Prewitt has the good fortune to play glass designer Stew Langer, who pretends to explode when an interviewer asks him how he has been affected by the economy: "There's no goddamn heat in the building!" Then, weirdly, Noel Collins, a warm and charismatic presence, plays that same Grant Prewitt interviewing Grant Prewitt's father (nicely played by Graves).

The show's technical aspects are excellent, and other performances are sturdy, with a few standing out: Powerhouse Dina Kirschenbaum kills with a big-mouthed impression of the Unicorn Theatre's irrepressible Cynthia Levin; she also demonstrates a rare knack for speaking each line just as naturally as if she were thinking out loud. Andrews, usually cast as imposing and aloof, is almost amiable (at times, even sunny) as that Brookside ad man, the show's angriest voice.

His performance sticks in your head. He's furious, of course, but he's also energized, engaged, alive in adversity. In a gently mordant moment, he fantasizes about torching his lost home with bank execs inside. At the end, he's almost jubilant, shouting "bastards!" one final time. Slammed! offers invaluable voices and revelations, questions and answers, creativity and showmanship. But it also offers your neighbor calling the bastards bastards, and goddamn, that's important, too.

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