KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With the biggest smile, Harris Park founder and Kansas City native Chris Harris stood in front of what is now his theater.
“We're standing right on 1604 E. 41st St., the new address of Harris Park," Harris said.
Harris can't help but smile when saying the address because it was once his, nearly 30 years ago, when the neighborhood didn't have as many people investing in it.
“I wanted to use sports as a catalyst to clean up and educate our community," Harris, who grew tired of the negative stigma often attached to the area East of Troost Avenue, said.
He started changing his community by cleaning up a patch of land across the street from his childhood home and opened Harris Park at the corner of 40th and Wayne in 1998, with a basketball court and local tournaments for kids.
Since then, an estimated $3 million has been raised in cash and in-kind donations to keep building onto it.
The park's newest addition is a stage and theater, to expand the performing arts to the urban core.
"Why not theater at a sports park? Because everybody can’t play basketball, everybody can’t play golf,” Harris said when asked where the idea to put an indoor theater next to the golf course came from.
Inside, the space is small — but its purpose is huge.
“A lot of times kids go to school all day [and] they're not able to let out that stuff," Improv Teacher and Co-founder of Tribe University Robert E. Coppage III said. "They're having to put on a front at school, they have to act all day at school - like they want to be there, like they are calm, quiet, chill, but I try and give them an opportunity to go outside of that, step outside the box, use their imagination.”
Coppage first stumbled upon Harris Park 10 years ago when he was living on 40th and Troost. He walked by the courts one day.
“It was a little park area but then I came back and I’m like yooo! This is everything, you got a golf course now?" Coppage said.
That golf course later became the backdrop for a music video that Coppage shot, called "Father of the Year."
“This park itself, like for the community, is a really good thing," Coppage said. "I’ve been seeing a lot of growth happen over here, I’ve been seeing a lot of people feeling safe up and down this street and what not, it’s a really neat thing, we get to see kids running around.“
When the theater opens in 2022, the hope is that some of those kids who are running around will audition to become part of the Harris Park Theater, where Coppage will teach improv.
“I started working at a comedy club, I was doing improv and I was looking around at all the other actors that were in there and I was like yo, we were all the class clowns. We were all the ones that used to get kicked out of the classroom and now here we are getting paid to do that," Coppage said.
Because if growing up to do something you're passionate about is a possibility, even on a small scale, why not, provide that opportunity for even more class clowns.
“You’re giving them something and letting them be able to decide what to do with it and it’s a beautiful process — That’s that community thing," Coppage said.
Auditions will be held this winter. Information will be posted on the Harris Park website.
Performances are expected by Spring 2022.
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